Portland School Committee commits to laptop computers for students, awaits funding

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PORTLAND — The School Committee last week voted 8-1 to participate in the state initiative to put laptop computers into the hands of high school students.

The program, however, depends on a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education to use about $1.8 million in stimulus money earmarked for economically disadvantaged and special education students to buy the computers. 

The June 24 decision was reached after more than two hours of deliberations, where some committee members were uncomfortable jumping into such a significant financial commitment in reaction to a state initiative, especially when the federal waiver has not been secured. 

Susan Gendron, the state education commissioner, said in a June 18 memo that the U.S. DOE is drafting language that would allow school districts to buy computers with their stimulus funds. Gendron was optimistic that final word on the waiver be received soon, and hopefully it would be positive.

“Sometimes you just have to jump,” Interim Superintendent of Schools Jeanne Whynot-Vickers said. “I’m not a huge risk-taker. I don’t jump blind-folded. I jump because I know I know I’m going to make it.” 

On Tuesday morning, meanwhile, the Maine DOE announced that 64,000 Apple laptop computers have been ordered for students in grades 7-12 throughout the state.

Participation in the Maine Laptop Initiative is expected to cost Portland more then $2.1 million over the next four years, but would provide computer access to 2,200 high school students. That investment includes installing wireless computer networks at both Deering and Portland high schools, training, software licenses and technical support. 

School Committee member Justin Costa said the initiative will allow the district to upgrade its technology and give equitable educational opportunities to economically disadvantaged and immigrant students by giving them access to technology.

“I can’t, so long as we get the waiver, vote against something that is going to be able to hit the nail of these two major goals right on the head,” Costa said.

Committee member Marnie Morrione argued that if the district did not take advantage of the opportunity to use stimulus fund for the laptops, it may never be able to improve access to technology for students because of competing budget priorities.

“Every year is going to be the same old song and dance,” Morrione said. 

Jaimey Caron was the only School Committee member to vote against the proposal. He said he wanted more time to study the financial ramifications of signing on to the four-year plan. Caron said the district has been warned by the state that future curtailments in education funding are all but certain, so he wanted to be sure the computer program is the best use of those funds.

“Making a poor choice that continues the financial struggles we have
been under does more to undermine our education mission that can be
compensated for at the high school with the laptops,” Caron said. “It’s
worth more analysis than we have before us now.”

Caron, who serves on the Finance Committee, said he was not comfortable taking a “leap of faith,” especially since the district just dug itself out of a $2 million deficit from 2007.

While the stimulus funds may cover the first two years of costs, Portland will have to locally fund as much as $1.5 million, including $528,000 in each of the fiscal 2012 and 2013 budgets.

The interim superintendent’s proposal includes an effort to buy back about 1,800 laptops currently being used by seventh- and eighth-graders, at a cost of more than $400,000, over the next two years, and distribute them to elementary students. Caron sought to postpone the committee’s vote to explore whether those computers could be used at the high school to reduce the number of new purchases.

“This would save $800,000 for the district,” Caron said. “It’s that kind of thinking I wish I saw more of in here.” 

When – and if – the federal waiver is granted, the district will immediately order the laptops, which will take about two weeks to deliver, according to DHS Principal Ken Kunin.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net