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Op-ed: Cost for laptop program at BCPS keeps rising

 

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.

STAT Budget Summary for BOE 12_10_15And 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.

dallas dance

Dallas Dance

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.”

[Also see: Op-Ed: Answers thin, logic thinner in BCPS tech initiative]

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.

[Also see: Op-Ed: BCPS needs to show us the money when it comes to technology initiative]

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. 


 

UPDATE, 3/2/16:

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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15 Comments on "Op-ed: Cost for laptop program at BCPS keeps rising"

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Joanne C. Simpson
Various resources are coming to light showing just how integrated the BCPS infrastructure investment has been to the BCPS digital conversion and STAT. The millions cited in this op-ed are, after all, listed in BCPS’s own digital conversion budget plan under “Total costs.” This from Ryan Imbriale, executive director of the BCPS department overseeing STAT, in an HP case study on STAT: “S.T.A.T. is a multi-year transformation of BCPS to meet those goals. BCPS went back to the drawing board in eight critical areas: curriculum, instructional model, assessment, professional development, digital infrastructure, policy, budget, and communications. “Each one of those areas is critical,” says Imbriale. “Curriculum can’t move forward without infrastructure. Infrastructure can’t move forward without policy and budget. And nothing happens without effective communication throughout the district.” ” http://m.hp.com/h20195/v2/GetPDF.aspx/4AA5-9462ENW.pdf ——- Also, from the U.S. Education Technology Plan, a case study on Baltimore County Public Schools is featured under the section devoted to “Infrastructure.” “Infrastructure. BCPS currently is updating its infrastructure to support S.T.A.T. by issuing mobile devices to instructional staff and students and by updating networks to ensure all schools are fully wireless. In addition, BCPS has partnered with the Baltimore County Public Library system to enable students to access the BCPS network in any county library .” http://tech.ed.gov/netp/ ———– And, if there is any question about these being ongoing costs: in-school and other robust servers last only several years, and much of this infrastructure will, of course, require updates. Aside from the monies spent on BCPS’s administrative campus,… Read more »
Joanne C. Simpson

Here are more details on Montgomery County Public Schools’ laptop initiative, which is costing about $20 million so far to purchase more than 50,000 laptops, according to a recent Washington Post story.

The plan, which originally had been proposed at 100,000 laptops for the district’s 151,000 students, has been scaled back for the near future. The eventual cost, according to school documents, would have been about $45 million to purchase the devices, but budget concerns have curtailed that roll-out.

See memo recently posted here:

http://www.montgomeryschoolsmd.org/uploadedFiles/departments/technology/strategic-tech-plan-september21.pdf

Overall page for Montgomery schools tech initiative: http://www.montgomeryschoolsmd.org/departments/technology/technologyplan.aspx

According to a schools’ spokesperson, last year Montgomery County students “in grades 3, 5 and 6 and high school social studies classes were equipped with Chromebooks, and [this year] students in grades 2, 4 and 7 and one high school subject were expected to get them.” Some small changes were made, according to the updated memo above.

Montgomery County Public Schools, according to one spokesman, is “focusing on providing online and computer access to students,” yet staying away from the costly one-laptop-per-student model it can’t afford.

Story on budget cuts:

http://wtop.com/montgomery-county/2015/06/mcps-completes-budget-work-classrooms-will-feel-impact/

Anonymous

For anyone still wondering if the high-end infrastructure costs — almost $13 million — was essential and linked to STAT, see this reference in the U.S. Department of Education’s National Education Technology Plan, which highlighted Baltimore County, (even though STAT’s rollout is only a year and a half old, and with no quantitative evidence and lower PARCC test scores):

http://tech.ed.gov/files/2015/12/NETP16.pdf

“Infrastructure. BCPS currently is updating its infrastructure to support S.T.A.T. by issuing mobile devices to instructional staff and students and by updating networks to ensure all schools are fully wireless. In addition, BCPS has partnered with the Baltimore County Public Library system to enable students to access the BCPS network in any county library.”

Anon2

So a bit of addition for Board of Ed members. Even using BCPS administration figures of $272 million to $285 million for STATs digital learning plan and underlying infrastructure for the first several years, and the $63 million a year annual thereafter — mostly just to lease these HP devices — this program will cost between $460 million and $474 million over the first decade. That’s close to a half a billion dollars! Whose money is this? County and state taxpayers. Who is getting the vast majority of this money? For-profit tech companies. This is indeed the scandal board member Michael Collins fears. Why won’t they do anything about it? One has to wonder.

Retired Teacher

There are so many needs in BCPS – seriously aging and sick buildings, no leadership in the BCPS Special Education office (director left last summer and yet to be replaced), children with special needs not getting accomodations they should have, overburdened/overworked teachers, a culture where dissent is certainly not encouraged (if-you’re-not-for-us-you’re-against-us mentality), age discrimination, lack of transparency and poor public relations…and of course a spending spree on technology that is well documented in SImpson’s Op-Ed.

Looks like we will have to see how many people become aware of the fact that the spending is out of control and that the priorities are all messed up. Blame Dallas Dance if you want but blame should be placed on the Board of Education — they are the ones who should be providing oversight and should be stepping in. They should uphol the oath they job when accepting their appointments to the board.

Anon

This post has much, much more on STAT, BCPS’ 1:1 conversion: https://statusbcps.wordpress.com/2016/03/06/stat-without-principle/

Taxpayer

Thanks so much for posting the actual budget as well. One can see how imbedded the $12.7 million is within the ‘digital conversion plan,’—central to the overall expenditures. It’s listed as a Total Cost for a reason, both in a budgetary and logistical sense. And I don’t get this $1 million summer stipend for the STAT teachers. Do regular teachers get that? Money is flowing out like water for this tech program. What about schools like Dulaney Valley High? Is it being ‘renovated’ vs. a new school being built because of the ill-conceived tech overhaul done there? What about the other nearly 60-year-old schools in the county?

Anon

Here is another well-researched response to the issues raised in the superintendent’s recent letter, especially in terms of research cited on the BCPS STAT webpage.

http://patch.com/maryland/dundalk/traveling-speed-stat-0

Joanne C. Simpson
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… Read more »
Appalled Taxpayer

The cost of the STAT initiative is clearly sailing well past $300 million. Far, far past. That’s crazy. There’s $285 million for the first six years. Add in those laptop-connected projectors, if they are approved as is expected within the year, at $30 million to $40 million, and the school system would be spending at least $315 million.

And with the STAT teachers actually doing STAT-related professional development for another $9 million a year… Even figuring just five years (since things were getting rolling in year one) that adds in $45 million…for a whopping grand total, barring likely unforeseen costs…of $360 million. (!) Just for the first several years. This is like one of those head-achey word problems. Only, it’s just simple multiplication and addition. And there’s a lot more at stake here than one wrong question on a math test.

Concerned Parents

Voice your concerns about STAT costs or other issues at tonight’s Baltimore County Board of Education Meeting at 7 p.m. Come at 6:30 or so to sign up to speak. Location: BCPS Greenwood Campus off Charles Street in Towson, E Building, Room 114.

Beth

When I visit RFES, it’s difficult to find a sink in the bathroom with warm running water with which to wash my hands. My son at DMS is not having a unit math test because there’s no time, given recent/upcoming MAP and PARCC testing. There are so many more pressing priorities than the ones that BCPS seems obsessed with currently.

BCPS Parent: NO 1:1

In BCPS, there are 33,000 kids without air conditioning, 47% are on Free and Reduced Meals, and every week, there are buses leaving elementary and middle school kids on corners because there are not enough drivers, and buildings are crumbling as noted in this article – we want to spent $58 million on tablet leases every single year, $63 million on overall costs for this initiative every single year? And this is so 6 year olds can have their own tablets, instead of sharing? This is absurd.

That $58 million earmarked every single year for tablets is equivalent to about 1000 teacher’s salaries. Who is going to be left holding these obsolete tablets when Dr. Dance leaves Baltimore after his term? They will indeed become obsolete unless we spend $58 million every single year. How can we let our Board of Education and our County Executive, Kevin Kamenetz fund this initiative?

Anonymous

I don’t understand why BCPS isn’t being transparent about STAT costs financial and otherwise. STAT “teachers” are not teaching students so they have been pulled from classrooms–this makes for larger class sizes. What other opportunity costs are there? What are our children losing out on because of STAT? It’s time for BCPS to be honest about what is being given up in order to fund STAT. Board of Education, your move.

Wendy Flowers

Excellent article. There are some real financial concerns surrounding this initiative.

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