Schools wrestle with budget strings attached to laptop computer initiative

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CAPE ELIZABETH — Buying a new laptop computer in these economic times probably isn’t palatable to anyone facing pay cuts, high food and utilities costs, and little hope of improvement within the next year.

At Cape Elizabeth High School, according to Superintendent Alan Hawkins, buying 600 of them just isn’t going to be an option.

Hawkins’ initial school budget proposal included enough in a contingency fund to support the latest proposed expansion of the Maine Learning Technology Initiative, if it is approved by the Legislature as part of next year’s state budget. The MLTI expansion calls for a laptop for every high school student in participating districts at a cost of $240 per laptop in 2009. Cape Elizabeth already has about 60 laptops for high school faculty through the last expansion of the program, as well as computers for every middle school student.

But in order to mitigate a $504,000 reduction in next year’s state subsidy without significantly raising property taxes, funds were taken out of the school district’s contingency fund and applied to other items in the budget. Hawkins said last week that the most recently proposed budget is nearly $60,000 short of funding the program.

Hawkins is holding out hope – he responded on a Department of Education survey that he is “still investigating” the possibility of implementing the program, and has mentioned the possibility of securing funding through grants or other means – but for the time being, the program isn’t part of next year’s plans.

Brunswick and Scarborough high schools have told the DOE that they, too, can’t participate in the high school laptop program if it’s approved. Officials at Greely High School in Cumberland told the state they were “still investigating,” although School Administrative District 51 Superintendent Robert Hasson said the program won’t be in next year’s budget.

Portland, Freeport, Falmouth and Yarmouth high schools are also still deciding whether or not the program is feasible, and where funds will come from. The DOE will take that survey data to Apple, the hardware provider, to determine whether or not numbers are suitable to maintain the $240 price tag.

The best news so far for many districts is that the schools won’t have to give up teacher laptop computers if they opt out of the one-to-one student computers. The DOE initially said schools would have to give up those computers if choosing not to buy into the new Apple laptop contract – Cape Elizabeth, for example, would have had to spend $60,000 to replace those laptops, which are integral to their high school curriculum.

This week, DOE spokesman David Connerty-Marin said that because of overwhelming objection to the possible loss of those faculty computers, districts will keep what they have regardless of new purchases.

While Cape Elizabeth is holding out hope for outside grants, some school districts, including Portland, are looking to tap into federal stimulus funds, which have already been allocated and will be delivered to districts beginning next month. Others, including SAD 51, have been hesitant to fund ongoing programs like this with stimulus funds, afraid of the “cliff” expected when that money runs out in 2011.

Connerty-Marin said the laptop expansion program is actually included in the state’s technology allocation for schools – schools are given about $275 per student to be used for student-centered computing. That number is higher than it has been in the past, in anticipation of the MLTI expansion.

Many districts have used that money for computer labs or laptop carts, Connerty-Marin said, which would be made redundant by the one-to-one laptop program. Laptops will cost $240 per student; that figure includes staff development, computer repair and replacement costs, and extensive software for each computer.

It does not include funds for any additional staffing necessary for districts to manage the program. If the expansion is approved as part of the 2009-2010 state budget, schools opting out of the program will not be able to opt in again until Apple contracts are renegotiated again in four years.

Connerty-Marin said an unofficial public hearing saw a lot of support for the program (an official hearing is not required because the expansion is part of the budget and not an individual proposal) from people excited about beefing up high school technology and the educational gains that go with it.

Connerty-Marin said studies in Maine have suggested writing skills have improved since middle school students were given laptops in 2002, and added that he’s seen that improvement personally – his eighth-grade daughter has been using a laptop through her middle school.

The expansion has, however, failed at least once in the last five years. It was included in early discussion of school reorganization, which was implemented last year, but “was quickly bumped from the picture,” Connerty-Marin said.

In some new RSUs, that reorganization and associated funding battles are complicating budgets and possibly jeopardizing new initiatives, including the laptop program.

John Jaques, president of the Maine K12 Technology Consulting Group in Freeport, has spoken to this in e-mails to the members of Freeport Families for Education, saying that RSU consolidation has “made a bad situation worse” for technology. He added that unless technology and programs like the MLTI are given a priority, the district will likely lose students to private schools “with better reputations.”

“Freeport schools have lagged behind in technology for several years now,” he said. “Our reputation will continue to slip unless we take corrective measures in this year’s school budget.”

Sarah Trent can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 108 or