School technology purchase raises questions in South Portland

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SOUTH PORTLAND — The City Council on Monday night approved $236,000 in new technology for the school department.

And for the second straight year, the purchases for the school department were criticized by residents and questioned by councilors. 

The technology includes 10 SmartBoards, an interactive, computerized whiteboard whose contents can be manipulated with a finger, and 140 Dell laptop computers and wireless routers for Brown and Skillin Elementary Schools.

Residents questioned the need for the technology, as well as the price paid for each laptop, while councilors focused on the bidding process.

School Technology Director Andrew Wallace said that SmartBoards have become vital instructional tools for some elementary teachers, while others simply have no interest in them.

Wallace said SmartBoard users claim that the easy manipulability of images helps keep students engaged in classroom learning.

The district will have SmartBoards in about half of the school’s classrooms, Wallace said.

To ensure the technology is not wasted, Wallace said the district awards SmartBoards through a competitive grant process where teacher’s must demonstrate how they will be used in the classroom.

Two residents, however, questioned the necessity of the technology.

Albert DiMillo criticised city officials for not conducting a cost-benefit analysis to see if student performance is actually improved by the technology. 

“We know the cost; what’s the benefit?” DiMillo said. “We’ve got these SmartBoards, yet our test scores are not very good in South Portland.”

Gary Crosby agreed with those comments and returned to the microphone to question the $153,500 price tag for 140 Dell laptop computers and 120 LCD monitors. Each laptop cost about $996 each.

“Something isn’t right there,” he said.

While residents said they could get similar laptops for about $500, Wallace said the price was higher because each comes with a three-year warranty, costing $125 for each computer.

The district also bought nine-cell batteries that can last all day and the computers are lighter than most computers.

DiMillo said the district opted for the Mercedes of laptops, rather than a Buick or Chevrolet.

“When you want the newest technology, you pay twice the price,” he said.

While Councilor Tom Blake said the price was similar to what he paid for the exact same computer, Councilor Rosemarie De Angelis said the city should have gotten a better rate for buying in bulk.

“It does look to me like this is street price,” she said.

Blake asked that the city have a workshop about the bidding process, which currently does not allow the city or schools to negotiate with vendors once the proposals are received.

Meanwhile, Wallace acknowledged that the city didn’t get the best deal from Dell.

“We’re not terribly pleased,” he said. “This is on the high end. And this will make us have a serious talk with Dell.”

Wallace said the laptops and the wireless equipment for Brown and Skillin elementary schools will improve equity across the district, since most schools are transitioning away from computer labs in favor of integrating technology in the classroom.

Although the City Council approved the purchasing contract, the funding will come from the school’s budget.

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

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