Op-Ed By Joanne C. Simpson
The true cost of Baltimore County Public Schools’ laptop initiative is a moving target—yet one dart seems to have hit a higher mark.
Ever-increasing media coverage of the BCPS digital conversion lists the cost somewhere near $272 million, but the price for the wireless network infrastructure upgrades is nearly $13 million and would bring the cost closer to $285 million — and that’s according to the actual conversion budget.
Yet that number is downplayed by school administrators in recent public presentations to the school board and letters to elected officials.
The $12.7 million in wireless network infrastructure was spent after Superintendent Dallas Dance was hired in 2012—during the years 2013 through 2015—to support the tech initiative that became known as STAT (Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow), officials said.
And even the digital conversion budget itself doesn’t include tens of millions more in related personnel and other tech costs considered essential to the program, such as STAT mentor/teachers or laptop-linked projectors; plus subsequent annual expenses.
So overall costs related to BCPS’s “digital learning environment” is really much higher. Period. Despite recent discussion of such amounts, transparency on this issue is still lacking.
This is public money.
And the public is starting to ask about it.
In an administration letter sent last week to the Baltimore County Council and state legislators, the superintendent acknowledged concerns about BCPS’ spending priorities. STAT’s cost, nonetheless, is listed at $272 million—a figure that is prominently featured as “Grand Total Ongoing Costs” in the budget plan.
The superintendent noted in the Feb. 24 letter: “Many of you may have received questions from your constituents regarding Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow (S.T.A.T.). The questions are very similar in scope so I thought it best to communicate the information to all of you.”
Those concerns include: “Support for this initiative over smaller class sizes and safer buildings; and Cost of the initiative.”
See Dance’s letter here.
The superintendent later elaborated: “In addition to student/teacher devices, the comprehensive S.T.A.T. plan includes professional development of approximately $2.1 million annually, curriculum and content of approximately $5.2 million annually, and library and classroom equipment and infrastructure of $44.8 million (over 7 years). All together the projected cost of the plan is approximately $272 million; however, the plan will be reevaluated and revised as necessary as implementation proceeds.”
Even $272 million is far higher than similar initiatives that bring needed tech options to classrooms.
In 2014-2015, Montgomery County Public Schools apparently proposed spending just $15 million to $20 million during its program’s first five years to offer students “21st Century Learning.” That funding was substantially curtailed recently by the county government, according to Montgomery school officials.
The Baltimore County Council and county executive will soon be considering a $14.5 million increase in county funding requested by BCPS for this upcoming school year. School officials have said all of that money will go to laptop leases.
On Thursday, Dance was asked about the higher “total cost” figure—$284,850,779—which was also listed (less prominently) in the proposed digital conversion budget released in early January after requests from school board members. Dance quickly responded in a short email to the board: “Network Infrastructure (first column of the document) is a one time $12,740,012 amount and is NOT ongoing.”
BCPS spokesperson Mychael Dickerson said in an email on Monday: “This is the one time cost to construct the wireless infrastructure for every school, classroom and BCPS facility that was first approved in the FY2014 Operating Budget.”
Such answers are helpful, and much appreciated. Yet, in the end, these costs are in the digital conversion budget, and all the parsing obfuscates the issue. “Ongoing” is just a word. $12.7 million is cold hard cash.
Improved wireless was needed at schools, but BCPS’s major infrastructure upgrade was required to support the digital conversion and use of more than 100,000 laptops and related STAT technology, sources say, and included school building retrofits, new or upgraded servers and fiberoptic cable to handle increased internet connectivity requirements.
And such costs are not even fixed long-term. Infrastructure would likely need to be upgraded further within several years, sources say, because of outdated server software, general wear and tear, or newer technologies, including plans to add nearly 7,000 interactive laptop-linked projectors—a $41 million contract that went before the school board earlier this month, before being sent back for a re-bid.
Meanwhile, some upgraded middle schools, even without all students being assigned laptops, are already stressing available internet bandwith with high device usage, crashing the schools’ networks. Further network fixes are apparently being performed to address the problems.
“You take one drink from the technology fountain and it’s a drink forever,” one source noted.
As of now, the overall tally for BCPS’s digital conversion is clearly approaching $300 million—and likely going higher. Several issues also have not been fully addressed by BCPS officials.
There’s the cost of BCPS leaders’ travel expenses to attend numerous ed-tech or digital learning conferences and other events to tout STAT’s ‘pioneering’ program. In the past couple years, Dance, Ryan Imbriale, BCPS’ digital director, or other technology staff have attended conferences in Austin, Tx., St. Louis, Mo., Orlando, Fl., and elsewhere. In an upcoming trip to Palm Springs, Ca. on March 19, Imbriale is apparently presenting “Change the Conversation: Telling Your School’s Story.”
Let’s get the story straight here.
What is the dollar figure on all STAT-related travel for staff? Where does the funding come from? And what is the opportunity loss, overall, in terms of money for students’ actual needs.
And then there’s the STAT personnel.
BCPS currently has 168 STAT mentor/teachers, yet only $1 million or so is set aside in the STAT budget. With salaries at about $60,000 each, $9 million more is needed annually to pay them, according to the administration’s figures.
That would bring STAT’s overall digital conversion cost from $285 million to at least $330 million. Let’s try to put in perspective why this number would not simply be acknowledged: The administration has noted that these personnel costs are for teachers, many of whom were already employed by the system. There were also previously about 100 technology teachers who led classes, until those positions were eliminated in 2014 to make way for the laptop program; those teachers were told to reapply for new positions within BCPS.
Yet critics and some board members note that these STAT personnel are non-instructional—no longer teaching students in classrooms, functioning instead as mentors to teachers incorporating tech.
A parents’ educational advocacy blog, STAT-us BCPS (statusbcps.wordpress.com) notes that the previous “technology teachers taught students. There are now STAT teachers—however, they do not teach students,” adding, “by these definitions alone, the class sizes are going up.”
The administration itself touts the STAT mentor/teachers as a primary source of success and an integral part of the initiative. BCPS’s STAT website headlines: “S.T.A.T. Teacher Program is viewed as highly beneficial, valuable asset.”
The conversion figures also do not include the more than $63 million annually in subsequent years for laptop leases, software curricula and other costs—up to $70 million with the STAT mentor/teachers salaries included. That $60 million to $70 million would need to be funded every year.
Bringing improved tech into schools is currently a common thread among districts, including comparable school systems in Maryland. Yet in Montgomery County, for example, a digital initiative centered on “21st Century Learning” is taking a different approach—incorporating devices and wireless, but not on a 1:1 laptop-per-student basis—proposing to spend less than $20 million over five years. That much-respected school district’s aim: to provide internet and computer access to students, yet keep costs sustainable.
According to The Washington Post and Montgomery County Public Schools’ office of technology, that district also does not have students take the schools’ less-expensive Chromebooks home, and instead keep the devices in “secure school cabinets.” BCPS 6th graders in the pilot Lighthouse schools currently take home the $1,400 HP EliteBooks, which is also planned for higher grades.
That take-home element of the program here increases student screen time and makes “hacking” and downloading video games easier, adding to digital distraction problems at school.
“Montgomery, with an enrollment of 151,000, is Maryland’s largest and fastest-growing school system. The project is not a one-to-one initiative — programs that assign a device to each student — but a combined approach that officials see as more affordable and sustainable,” the Post notes.
According to Montgomery County school officials reached on Monday, that initiative—projected to cost just $15 million to $20 million by fiscal year 2020, was recently scaled back significantly because of limited county funds.
Again, Baltimore County schools’ projected spending on STAT in a similar time period is nearly 20 times those figures—at $285 million.
Lastly, of note, while even $13 million more might not seem a lot within the $1.5 billion or so annual school budgets, there’s increasing pressure among parents and others to spend millions instead on needy schools, such as Dulaney Valley High, Landsdowne High and others grappling with undrinkable water, large class sizes, asbestos abatement issues, or decaying 40-plus-year-old buildings housing all the robust new servers under often crumbling ceilings.
BCPS Chief Communications Officer Mychael Dickerson sent more details today on the school system’s tech infrastructure upgrade. Grateful for additional answers, I am posting them here:
“The Department of Information Technology provides data and voice network infrastructure support to over 175 locations, with over 130,000 users. The upgrades to the Local Area Network (LAN) and Wide Area Network (WAN) provides data and voice, cable TV and wireless. The network supports data backup, e-mail/collaboration, firewall, core infrastructure, server, video conferencing gateway, user, and Web filtering, wide and external connectivity to Baltimore County Government, CCBC, and other entities. The infrastructure upgrades were already in progress to meet state and federal guidelines regardless of BCPS digital conversion.”
My side note: The extensive wireless infrastructure upgrade was also necessary for the STAT one-laptop-per-student initiative, and apparently funded within two years in line with the digital conversion timeline, according to numerous sources; the $12.7 million cost is cited in the BCPS digital conversion budget.
And here also are a few specifics regarding the STAT mentor/teachers, some of this noted in this op-ed and previous posts: “There are 168 S.T.A.T. teachers. Approximately forty-five technology liaison positions were converted to S.T.A.T. teachers. No positions have been eliminated. Teaching assignments may change annually according to instructional priorities. Other S.T.A.T. teaching positions were redirected from classroom and non-classroom teaching support positions that were budgeted prior to S.T.A.T. and are not included in the formal S.T.A.T. budget.”
One brand new answer provided by Dickerson, who also pointed out that the STAT teachers earn an average of $60,000 a year: “The $1 million referenced above is for professional development stipends paid to S.T.A.T. teachers when school is not in session.”
Thanks again for the answers. We look forward to additional responses to queries regarding this program in the future.
Joanne C. Simpson is a former staff writer for The Miami Herald, South Florida Sun-Sentinel, and Johns Hopkins Magazine. She is a BCPS parent, college educator, and freelance writer based in Baltimore.
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