Portland school officials to hold hearing on alternative plan for laptop computers

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PORTLAND — The School Committee has scheduled a public hearing for Wednesday, Aug. 26, on a plan to purchase more than 2,000 netbook computers for high school students.

Buying netbooks surfaced as an alternative to participating the Maine Laptop Computer Initiative, which is being expanded to include high schools along with middle schools.

When the state initiative was rolled out to middle school students in 2001, it was funded by the state. This time around, however, the state is requiring local school districts to pay the costs.

Superintendent James C. Morse Sr. said in a memo to the School Committee that while school districts that receive a significant education subsidy from the state are finding it easier to buy into the state initiative, minimal receivers like Portland are struggling to find money in their current budgets. 

Portland had originally hoped to use federal stimulus money to cover the $2.3 million state plan, which includes buying new Apple computers for high school students and buying back the current crop of middle school laptops being replaced by the state for use in the elementary schools. But when a federal waiver was not granted for that use, school officials sought other, less-costly alternatives. 

Morse’s $1.25 million plan recommends the district purchase 2,129 netbook PCs for $1.09 million and buying back the current batch of 1,179 Apple laptops for $160,000 for redistribution to the elementary schools.

Morse’s program would be paid for in two years. This year, $785,000 would be paid by primarily using stabilization and special education money. Paying the remaining balance of $511,000 would rely on using $446,000 in city technology bonding and $47,000 from other sources.

Morse said the biggest difference between Apple laptops and netbooks is the processing speed. Students will be able to work on class assignments and connect to the Internet on netbooks, but will not be able to load and edit video as they would on an Apple. Teachers, he said, will be better able to personalize their instruction to each student. 

“Improving our information technology is important, but we also face significant financial challenges,” School Committee Chairman Peter Eglinton said in a press release. “Comments from staff, students and residents could help the committee weigh our competing priorities.” 

The committee first heard Morse’s proposal at it’s Aug. 5 meeting. But rather than proceed to a vote, committee member Kate Snyder, who leads the Finance Committee, suggested holding a public hearing to get community input, especially since the plan would affect future budgets, which are projected to shrink along with city and state revenues.

“I’m going to be very, very careful about what kind of multi-year commitment we make to expenditures right now,” Snyder said. “We’re not talking about shifting (money), we’re talking about adding something (to the current budget).”

Snyder said she called for a public hearing because of the perception that the laptop plan is being slipped through late in the summer, when many families aren’t paying as much attention to school news as they would in the fall. 

“I think we should get feedback from the public,” Snyder said. “The more we engage the community, the more credibility we have.

“I never want to look like we’re pulling a fast one,” she added.

The public hearing will take place at 7 p.m. in room 250 of Casco Bay High School. If the plan is approved at the committee’s meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 2, the netbooks would be distributed sometime in November.

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