Vote planned on high school laptop computer plan in Portland

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PORTLAND — The School Committee on Wednesday will be asked to commit to the state’s efforts to put laptop computers into the hands of every high school student.

But school officials have said that it will be extremely difficult – if not impossible – to come up with the implementation costs in their fiscal 2010 budget, which was recently passed by voters and will take effect July 1. 

Superintendent Jeanne Whynot-Vickers said the district is seeking a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education that would allow Portland to use federal stimulus funds toward the first two years of implementation costs, totalling nearly $1.8 million. 

However, state Education Commissioner Susan Gendron said in a letter to superintendents that the federal DOE was “very supportive” of the waiver request and is working towards the waiver, but no final decision has been reached. Gendron then asked superintendents to finalize their district’s participation in the program – under the assumption the waiver would be granted – so the computers would be ready by the fall.

“I know this has taken more time to get an answer than we had hoped,” Gendron said. “This news from the U.S. Department (of Education) on this issue is extremely encouraging and I hope to be able to provide you a final – and hopefully positive – answer shortly.”

Whynot-Vickers said she hopes the School Committee will keep an open mind about her proposal and either postpone a final decision until the district hears definitively about the waiver, or approve her proposal contingent on the waiver. 

“I don’t know if I will get them there, but I’m going to try,” she said. 

It would take an investment of more than $2.1 million over the next four years to lease nearly 2,200 Apple laptop computers at $242 each for high school students. Meanwhile, Whynot-Vickers said the district hopes to purchase the nearly 1,800 laptops currently being used by seventh- and eighth-graders, at a cost of $206,000 over the next two years, and distribute them to elementary students.

Both initiatives would cost $693,000 in fiscal 2010, $569,000 in 2011 and $528,000 in 2012 and 2013. Whynot-Vickers said those costs include installing wireless connections at Deering and Portland high schools, plus training, software licenses and technical support.  

Whynot-Vickers said the waiver being sought would allow the district to use $540,000 in stimulus funds earmarked for Title I (federal funds for low-income students) and special education programming to buy the computers in each of the next two years.

While 45 percent of the students in the district are considered low income, Whynot-Vickers said none of the high schools qualify for Title I funds. Getting the waiver, she said, would put technology into the hands of students whose families cannot otherwise afford them 

“This would be a perfect use for those funds,” she said. 

Although some School Committee members said the plan would level the academic playing field for disadvantage students, they are concerned about whether the district is in a financial position to participate. 

School Committee Chairman Peter Eglinton said Monday that he will be meeting with the interim superintendent on Tuesday to discuss the status of the waiver. Eglinton said he would be hesitant to commit to the laptop program without having the waiver in hand. Eglinton said the computer program is a great opportunity for students, but the district could face another $1.8 million curtailment in education funds next year. 

“At the moment, I would be uncomfortable committing the district to significant, unbudgeted costs without more certainty regarding the sources of funding and the impacts on our other priorities,” Eglinton said. “We have other significant classroom and facility needs that must be weighed against the Maine Laptop Initiative.”

Committee member Kate Snyder, who chairs the Finance Committee, said the chances of the district being able to reallocate funds in fiscal 2010 budget to expand the laptop program would be difficult, even if the waiver comes through.

“Retrofitting the significant funds into a just-passed budget is really tough,” she said.

Wednesday night’s meeting is scheduled to start at 7 in room 250 of Casco Bay High School, 196 Allen Ave. 

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or