After a nearly hour-long discussion that at times had participants talking over each other, the Hays USD 489 school board approved spending more than $300,000 on student devices at Hays High School in the first purchase of a replacement schedule for the district.
The $335,750 purchase will provide 850 Dell Latitudes to replace the high school’s Microsoft Surface 3 devices purchased in 2015. The Surface 3 is no longer supported by Microsoft, and district technology staff have reported repair costs for the devices are increasing.
High school students will receive the Latitudes for the 2018-19 school year. According to the replacement schedule devised by the technology committee last year, the middle school will be due for device upgrades in 2019-20. The following year, grades three through five will receive new devices. Kindergarten through second grade will receive upgrades in the 21-22 school year, and in 22-23, the schedule will begin again with the high school.
The board’s vote Monday was 5-2, with Board President Lance Bickle and board member Greg Schwartz voting against. The board discussed the issue at its April 9 meeting, but took no action and requested information from the technology committee on why less expensive, cloud-based Google Chromebooks were not considered for the purchase.
While the cost itself was a concern expressed by Bickle and Schwartz, they, along with Vice President Mandy Fox, expressed a desire for the technology committee to show a deeper analysis on devices.
Technology Director Scott Summers gave the board several reasons why the committee didn’t consider Chromebooks:
• Limited offline capabilities of the Chromebook.
• An increased need for dedicated lab space for some classes.
• Some hardware, such as $14,000 worth of probes and sensors in the high school science department, cannot be used with the Chromebooks.
• The need for full, installed versions of software rather than cloud-based.
• Feedback from a community advisory committee and the fact major universities do not recommend Chromebooks.
• The amount of professional development teachers have spent in training on Windows devices.
Bickle said the issue for him, especially after hearing from several parents, mainly was one of needs versus wants.
“I’m not saying we don’t need technology or any of that stuff,” said Bickle, who owned a residential and business technology company for 15 years.
“I can honestly say technology needs are important, but the issue I struggle with is are they the most important thing in the district right now?
“We still have to pass a bond, and we as a district need to be as fiscally responsible as possible as far as going through this with taxpayer money,” he said.
“At the end of the day … if we can save $100,000 to $150,000 in hardware costs, we have to look at those things,” Bickle said.
Schwartz questioned the technology staff on whether the committee had consulted districts that did use Chromebooks and other experts on educational technology, such as Fort Hays State University’s Department of Education.
“They’re the experts in it. That’s what they do. They go out and train schools, they provide that professional development piece you talked about,” he said.
“It would seem that would be the people you talk to. If they’re a stone’s throw away, why wouldn’t we go talk to them?”
Summers said the technology committee made the decision based on the needs of the device and what it would take to prepare the student for their needs after high school. An advisory committee, made up of people from the community in a variety of career fields, also provided its input, he said.
“None of the data we saw really supported the Chromebook,” Summers said.
Schwartz said he had contacted districts larger and smaller than Hays as well as those in the surrounding area, and found that some did have success with the Chromebook. He suggested in the future, USD 489 might try a pilot program for Chromebooks as well as one that would allow students to bring a device from home rather than use a school-provided device.
Bickle said he would like to see the technology committee offer more of the pros and cons of using one technology platform over another.
“My one wish for the technology committee would be to truly explore more of that next time and look into some of that and not focus on what we can’t do with them. I would like to see us focus on what is it that we can do,” he said.
“There are other schools out there that are making them work. What is it they’re doing?” he said.
Fox echoed Bickle’s and Schwartz’s suggestions.
“I like the idea of a trial, a lab, to see what they can do,” she said.
“Better representation, a clearer picture, a side-by-side analysis is what I’m really looking for in the future,” she said.
Board member Luke Oborny noted the cost difference between the Dells and a compatible Chromebook model would only be $56,000, which Paul Adams said is far less than the lost “opportunity cost” with faculty of switching to the Chromebook.
“How much time are we going to spend on retraining instead of advancing the curriculum? We’ve invested the time, and that costs money,” he said.
“But what does it cost? Nobody’s investigated that,” Schwartz said.
“It’s going to be far more than $56,000,” Adams said.
“How do you know? If you don’t go check it out, you don’t know. You’re speculating,” Schwartz responded.
Hays High School business teacher Suzanne Stark gave a brief summary of some of the training teachers have gone through, estimating a conference that several teachers attend every years costs thousands per teacher.
She also spoke of the advantage of Windows-based devices over the Chromebooks.
In all her classes, she said, students use Microsoft OneNote, which allows them to answer worksheets by writing on the screen with a stylus.
“I understand that’s probably very handy, but it’s very expensive,” Schwartz said. “Paper is cheap. I know it’s wasteful, I know there’s environmental issues that go along with it, but it’s very cheap versus a computer,” he said.
Stark said the Chromebooks would be a step backwards for Hays High, a point board member Sophia Young agreed with, but she said if the capabilities of the devices advance, they might be appropriate.
“I don’t think the Chromebook is advanced enough for how advanced our students are working,” she said.