By Joanne C. Simpson
For The Towson Flyer
Baltimore County auditors are pressing the public school system for answers on its laptop-per-student program, as well as the schools’ overall spending and other priorities for next school year — including whether parents could be given “an ‘opt-out’ alternative to digital learning environments” for their children.
In a May 16 memo from the Office of the County Auditor to Baltimore County Schools Superintendent Dallas Dance, auditors asked BCPS about the schools’ technology initiative, with planned “total costs” of $285 million in the first several years.
The program known as STAT, for Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow, was launched in 2014 in pilot schools and is slated to expand to all county schools in the next few years. Overall, BCPS has proposed a $1.8 billion budget for 2016-2017, more than half of which is funded by county tax dollars, with state funds covering most of the remainder.
[pullquote]The county analysis also noted that spending on STAT has risen, “while funding for instructional [salaries] has remained relatively flat, and funding for the Instructional Textbooks & Supplies program has declined.”[/pullquote]
In the county analysis, auditors also cited potential reductions of $483,900 for BCPS’s FY17 operating budget. School system revisions, the report notes, are to be presented for council approval on June 6.
The audit, which also compared school budget projections to actual spending, noted that some line items were “budgeted significantly above actual reported expenditure levels on a consistent basis.”
The county analysis also noted that spending on STAT has risen, “while funding for instructional [salaries] has remained relatively flat, and funding for the Instructional Textbooks & Supplies program has declined.”
Such materials and supplies have been “pinched,” the report notes. For example, separate from the auditor’s report, various principals and teachers have expressed concerns lately that they don’t have enough novels for students to read in class, with teachers reading from a single text.
The document also addresses concerns about a “high-level” of teacher and administrator turnover; bus driver and other staff salaries compared to other districts; and whether spending has been cut from school field trips and day-to-day operations, among other issues. The audit notes that hundreds of school positions have been left vacant—including the “school system’s chief Risk Management and Purchasing Positions.”There will be a county council budget hearing today at 3:00 PM, and the auditor’s report said that BCPS “should be prepared to discuss” the following:
• Why its budget document does not align to its actual spending patterns in recent years for key instructional costs such as salaries and instructional supplies;
• The opportunity costs of funding the digital conversion/S.T.A.T. initiative and why BCPS has chosen to prioritize this initiative over other competing funding needs;
• Performance data related to the implementation of the digital conversion/S.T.A.T. initiative, including student test scores in Lighthouse schools as well as program evaluation results
• Any challenges noted during the implementation of the digital conversion/S.T.A.T. initiative (e.g., students’ abilities to breach the devices’ security features, teachers’ abilities to balance digital and non-digital content in the classroom, reliability of internet access) and how these challenges have been addressed;
• Results of independent (non-tech industry) studies regarding the benefits and drawbacks of classroom technology that BCPS has consulted during the implementation of the digital conversion/S.T.A.T. initiative.
• How BCPS responds to parent concerns regarding screen time and radio frequency exposure [from wireless networks] and if consideration is being given to an “opt-out” alternative to digital learning environments.
Lastly, among other comments in the report, county auditors raised specific questions about possible student health issues related to higher technology use in schools.
BCPS advised that since the rollout of the digital conversion/S.T.A.T. initiative, it has not budgeted funding for technology exposure studies geared toward developing an understanding of issues ranging from maximum recommended screen time for children to amounts of radiofrequency exposure. … BCPS further advised that “numerous studies [regarding radiofrequency exposure], including work done by the World Health Organization, have concluded that there is no scientific evidence that the weak radio frequency signals emitted by wireless base stations and wireless networks cause adverse health effects.”
However, the Baltimore Sun recently reported that doctors from Harvard and Yale medical schools attending an annual meeting of the Pediatric Academic Societies advised that “parents should limit their children’s use of cellphones, iPads, and other wireless technology because it could cause behavioral and concentration problems.” According to the Sun, while “There is little research on the impact of the microwave radiation and radio frequency radiation emitted by wireless devices on children…the doctors said early studies provide enough evidence to suggest that parents should exercise caution.”
The full auditors’ report can be viewed here.
The county auditors’ analysis of the BCPS Capital Budget was also released. Detailing enrollment, overcrowding data, and possible construction or renovation plans, it can be found here.