The following is a guest post by Joanne C. Simpson:
Many Baltimore County families have faced tight budgets. And school administrators here tell parents there’s no money to spare when our children struggle in class sizes approaching 30, battle headaches in 95-plus degree classrooms, or dodge brown drinking water at their schools.
So when Baltimore County Public Schools (BCPS) launched an initiative in 2014 to give all students laptops, the $205 million price tag stirred controversy.
The plan also raised questions.
Query one: Which school needs — teachers’ salaries, staffing for smaller class sizes, nutritional support, or environmental fixes — would go unfunded to pay for the new devices? What would be trimmed from “an already anemic school budget?” (“Baltimore County school board OKs $205 million technology contract“)
Query two: What would the tech initiative actually cost, considering all supporting infrastructure for wireless Internet access and staff?
Those concerns remain. There’s a chance we could get some answers tonight, Jan. 19, when BCPS’s 12-member Board of Education holds a work session in Towson to discuss the proposed 2016-17 school budget. It’s open to the public (speakers’ sign up begins at 5:30 and the meeting starts at 6:30 — see details here).
I might not count on full disclosure, however.
Two years post-approval, there’s no real answer yet to what services or salaries will be cut, especially long-term, to lease 120,000 to 150,000 laptops for teachers and students, and to pay for online or video game-based curricula, among other costs. Next year, $45.4 million is slated within the proposed $1.5 billion BCPS budget to pay for part of the “digital conversion” known as STAT (Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow).
Yet, with the budget set for a school board vote on Feb. 2, there are finally new details about the second question. The real overall costs of STAT are now projected at $272.1 million for the “BCPS Proposed 6 Year Instructional Digital Conversion Plan.” That’s nearly $70 million higher than previously discussed.
And, breaking news to most: On top of that, $63 million or more would be required every year thereafter — with 92 percent (!) going to the laptop leases alone, according to officials and budget proposal documents released in early January.
That means in one decade BCPS would spend at least $630 million to lease laptops, which schools would turn over every four years, amid other costs. Ten new state-of-the art schools could be funded at that price, likely with some snazzy new tech options, too. Operating vs. Capital Expenditures aside (day-to-day vs. buildings), money is money.
It’s clear, as some have said, that BCPS schools need better tech options, and wireless accessibility at many schools is outdated or nonexistent. High school students, especially, need better on-ramps to college, where laptops are standard. All of this takes money, too. And it’s not cheap. Yet, as a BCPS parent and a writer, I started to wonder about overall cost and benefits, both educationally and financially. (“Concerns about BCPS’ use of technology in classrooms to be discussed Jan. 12“)
And I’m not alone.
Just several weeks before the $205 million lease contract was approved here, the Miami-Dade County School district in Florida “pushed the pause button” on the one-laptop-for-every-student digital computing initiative for its 354,000-student district when various other laptop-per-student programs around the country, including Los Angeles Unified School District and elsewhere, started unraveling. (“A Cautionary Tale for Any Government IT Project: L.A.’s Failed iPad Program“)
Miami-Dade later moved to borrow $63 million for 150,000 devices, and tailored its approach. “This is about being prudent, pragmatic, and cautious,” Sylvia J. Diaz, a district deputy superintendent told Education Week. “It’s not that we don’t want to give kids the tools they need to be successful, but we want to do it in a way that is not going to be disruptive or wasteful.”
Yet at more than $1,300 a pop, the HP EliteBook Revolve 810 G2s leased by BCPS seem more wish-list than practical, especially when other school systems (such as Anne Arundel County) opt for devices that cost half as much, or less — usually not 1:1, or for grades 3-12, or used solely in middle or high schools partly to keep costs within reason. (Chromebooks, apparently the most popular choice, cost about $300, and other versatile hybrids laptop/tablets can be picked up for $500 to $800).
I know students and teachers here are finding some cool math programs and exploring new learning models, but this could be accomplished with less money and more balance.
At first, it does seem pretty sweet that BCPS is providing high-end devices for our children, until we realize that we’re the ones paying — with our tax dollars. What other STAT costs are we funding via taxes?
In a Jan. 7 meeting in his office’s conference room, BCPS Superintendent Dr. Dallas Dance told me that library upgrades (wifi infrastructure and such) were already needed at many BCPS schools. Dr. Dance also said the oft-cited $205 million was the school board-approved spending authority for device leasing and support from Daly Computers, based in Montgomery County, MD. That $205 million, he said, could be less in the end.
In a follow-up letter to myself and others on Jan. 13, Dr. Dance noted:
“You directly asked me if we ‘misled’ the public stating $205 million when the 6-year S.T.A.T. financial planning document stated $272 million. I emphatically answered, ‘No,’ and I shared with you that the planning document is an internal document detailing all associated costs with the initiative including wireless infrastructure, classroom specifications, library specifications, curriculum, and professional development. In addition, I also noted that the technology contract includes personnel to ensure support to schools as they transition.”
Yet library updates or “specs,” at $3.3 million total, entail just 1 percent of the six-year $272.1 million plan. And laptop leasing costs for 2016-2017, originally slated for $37.5 million under the original contract, have already jumped $600,000 to $38.1 million — and that’s under the slower rollout, known as Plan B. Professional development/staff for digital curricula, apparently lacking in Los Angeles’ plan, seems to stay steady at $500,000 a year for a while.
In the end, it is mostly about the computers. New devices or prices could conceivably be negotiated. Yet, of the projected $63 million in annual future costs, nearly $58 million — 92 percent — would pay for laptop leases alone, under the plan. And, by 2019-20, money spent on STAT teachers appears to actually drop by more than a third to $1 million. Does this mean teachers would lose jobs?
We are grateful Dr. Dance shared his thoughts and time, and that he has started to express flexibility on the program’s future, yet will the true overall costs be transparent in the coming years?
Here are some of the questions concerned parents and community members still want answered. If you have additional questions, please send them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. We request true answers, clarifications, or math checks from BCPS.
In a subsequent op-ed, I hope to be able to share data from BCPS that will address these issues and answer the following questions:
1. What exactly will be trimmed this upcoming year, in terms of services and operating costs, to shift $7.2 million to the digital conversion under the so-called “Budget Realignment”? How will $17 million more be “realigned” over the following two years? What would be lost to make way for tech gains? BCPS’s proposed 2016-17 budget does designate about $34 million in raises and benefits for employees next year, yet under budget pressure, will teachers eventually be cut, or will class sizes expand?
2. It’s unclear how the STAT/conversion will actually be funded overall. The budget indicates the “realignment” cash-shift of $7.2 million next year, plus a requested (but not assured) increased county contribution of $14.5 million. Yet STAT’s projected cost for that year is $45.4 million. Where exactly will the remaining revenue originate?
3: What is the true-and-accurate projected cost of maintaining STAT after the 6-year plan? Numbers discussed range from $62.9 million to $67 million annually, according to government sources. How will we fund this outlay of cash in a school system with a growing student population and many pressing needs? Is there a more tailored way to incorporate effective tech options and be truly 21st Century savvy?
Please, BCPS, let us know.
Joanne C. Simpson is a former staff writer for The Miami Herald, South Florida Sun-Sentinel, and Johns Hopkins Magazine, as well as a BCPS parent, college educator, and freelance writer based in Baltimore.
If you are interested in submitting an op-ed, please contact me here.