South Portland council deadlocks on student computers, bond moves forward
SOUTH PORTLAND — The City Council may reconsider a Monday vote blocking the School Department purchase of iPads for high school students during a special workshop at 6 p.m., Monday, June 10 at the Community Center.
By a 3-3 vote, with Councilor Al Livingston absent, councilors deadlocked on approving the School Department purchase of iPads as part of the Maine Technology Learning Initiative. A majority vote was needed to allow the department to spend about $785,000 for iPads and networking charges.
School Superintendent Suzanne Godin and Technology Director Andrew Wallace said they were disappointed by the vote and hope a new workshop discussion will prompt councilors to put the order up to a new vote at the June 17 council meeting.
"I was shocked by the City Council vote," Godin said Wednesday in an email. "My concern is that this vote was extremely short-sighted. We're building a multi-million dollar high school built on a 1:1 computing program. Now we won't have any computers. It just doesn't make sense."
Councilors Jerry Jalbert, Melissa Linscott and Michael Pock voted against the order, while it was supported by Mayor Tom Blake and councilors Patti Smith and Linda Cohen.
“I know it's how we function in our world, but is it the best way to learn?" Linscott asked. "It is possible to get a quality education without having a screen in front of you.”
Pock wondered how he got through school without using a computer while expressing his opposition.
“Half these kids can't write anymore and now they are on computers,” he said. “I'm against the whole thing."
Councilor Patti Smith took an opposite tack in supporting the purchase.
“The state and school districts across the state recognize change happens ... I'd rather err on the side of technology,” Smith said.
About three hours before the vote, Colchester Road resident Albert DiMillo Jr. told councilors he would sue to block the purchase because he feels the School Department illegally diverted surplus from budgets approved by voters into a reserve fund to pay for devices for high school students.
Under the MLTI program, the state Department of Education pays for devices for seventh- and eighth-graders. In renewing the program, Gov. Paul LePage approved the Hewlett Packard HP 4400 laptop as the primary device for students and staff, but added the option for districts to supply students and staff with iPads, a tablet made by Apple.
The MLTI plan is a four-year lease with a buyout option. The state will reimburse districts not using the HP 4400 for students up to the annual $254 cost of the HP 4400. Any devices bought for high-schoolers are funded locally, but the iPad option favored by Wallace also provided free units for high-school staff.
"I am disappointed with the decision, but hopeful that it can be reconsidered," Wallace said. "I will continue to make myself available to listen to, and learn from people's concerns."
The iPads favored by Wallace are offered at $217 annually, with a networking fee amounting to about $31 after partial DOE reimbursement. Wallace said he sees the iPads as the wave of the computing future. He said the combination of applications and ease of use make them a good choice, and noted the School Department can see some of the same supply savings that have resulted in City Council use of iPads.
“One of the reasons you all have iPads is to save money on printing,” Wallace said.
Councilors also took the first steps in placing at $14 million construction bond, for a combined public works, transportation and parks and recreation facility, on the Nov. 5 ballot.
In the first order, councilors approved amending the current capital improvements budget to reflect a projected $4 million increase in costs. In the second order, councilors approved the first reading of the needed bond ordinance to get the question on the ballot.
City Manager Jim Gailey said the facility is now called a "community services" facility, and while the $14 million bond is an increase above the $10 million "placeholder" in the CIP budget, the estimated cost has been scaled back from nearly $20 million through plan revisions.
A June 17 public hearing will be held on the ordinance before a second reading and vote authorizing the question for the Nov. 5 ballot.