Scarborough continues to wrestle with cost of school technology

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SCARBOROUGH — School Board members continued pleading their case Wednesday night to town councilors, insisting that laptop computers for each high school student is a step toward top-tier education.

The school budget proposal presented at the joint board and Town Council meeting – approximately $44 million – is about $1.4 million less than the figure approved at the first reading on April 1.

As of Wednesday night, the total budget for the town and School Department was about $59.5 million. It would require a tax hike of 6 percent, resulting in a mil rate of $16.02 per $1,000 of assessed value. For a home valued at $300,000, the annual tax bill would be about $4,800.

The initial proposal to purchase Lenovo laptop computers at Scarborough High School was capped at about $866,000 for the first year. At the May 13 meeting, the School Board had shaved that by about $118,000 to $748,000.

The annual cost is expected to decline over the six-year payment cycle, fluctuating between approximately $517,000 and $11,400.

The proposal also gives high school seniors the option to purchase their computers at the end of the year, starting at a cost of $400 and decreasing by $100 for the next four years. 

The cost per device for the district over the six-year period is proposed at $232, down from the first proposed figure, $459. Students would pay $60 per year: $30 to cover accidental damage to the device and maintenance, and $30 to be rolled forward into the cost of future devices, according to Jennifer Lim, information systems director for the School Department. 

Factored into the technology budget is a 14 percent free-and-reduced rate for qualifying students, Lim said. 

The decision to purchase devices for high school students “is not cutting-edge technology,” board member Chris Caizzo told the council on Wednesday. “We are not ahead of the curve.” Scarborough is one of three school districts left in the state without one-to-one technology at the high school level, he said. 

Councilor Chairwoman Jessica Holbrooke asked about the savings laptops would bring versus staying with textbooks. 

Superintendent George Entwistle said it’s about 30 percent less than what costs would be if the district tried to use textbooks to maintain the same level of information access that devices allow. 

“It’s not just cost savings,” Entwistle said, “it’s cost avoidance.”

It’s very easy to look at the numbers and make deliberations, “but what it’s going to enable” is the important part, Town Manager Tom Hall added.

The use of technology as a learning tool “is a game changer” for how the district views education; it will facilitate “so many incredible learning experiences we cannot get (otherwise),” Entwistle said.

He noted Scarborough’s No. 11 seed in the U.S. News and World Report rankings of high schools across the country and said that, after calculating the average teacher-to-student ratio at the top 10 schools, Scarborough High School had about 17 fewer teachers in the equation. 

While personal access to technology wouldn’t necessarily substitute the need for more teachers, Entwistle said, it would allow students to independently pursue “deeper levels of learning” without the district formally adding more curriculum and hiring more teachers to fill that need.

Lim cited computer coding in the elementary and middle schools as an example. 

Councilor Shawn Babine advised both the board and the council that this would be a long-term investment, and with state aid for the district decreasing each year, funding technology at the high school for the next six years could be a tight squeeze. 

Board member Kelly Murphy reminded him that devices are as important as text books, and questioned whether the district would buy textbooks.

“Technology levels the playing field for our high school students to compete across Maine and across the country,” Murphy said.

The council’s final reading of the school budget will be Wednesday, May 20. The budget referendum is scheduled for Tuesday, June 9.

Alex Acquisto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow Alex on Twitter: @AcquistoA

South Portland and Scarborough reporter for The Forecaster. Graduate of Western Kentucky University and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Alex can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106.