An approximately $336,000 proposal to purchase Hays High School student laptops was met with uncertainty from some USD 489 Board of Education members Monday, as they weighed the district’s overall financial situation and pressing facilities needs.
The school district’s technology committee suggested buying 850 Dell Latitude 3189 convertible models to replace the school’s current Microsoft Surface 3 devices, which were purchased three years ago and are no longer supported by Microsoft. They have a repair cost of $210 per computer — soon increasing to $310, said Scott Summers, director of technology.
The cost for each new Dell would be $395, and the two-in-one laptop/tablet models would have a three-year warranty that includes accidental damage. The committee considered four different models, but the Dell received the most favorable response from educators and students, Summer said, noting it also would allow in-house maintenance.
“The Dell gained the most favor and traction from the survey we did at the high school and also with the technology committee,” he said. “And the warranty alone sets the Dell ahead of the HP.”
Board member Greg Schwartz questioned why more affordable models — such as Google Chromebooks — were not considered as part of the process. He noted many school districts in Kansas have successfully implemented Chromebooks for classroom use.
Also at Monday’s meeting, the board heard an overview of the district’s capital outlay budget and discussed urgent facilities needs and a possible $20 million in deferred maintenance costs. While the district has a statewide reputation for being on the cutting edge of student technology, Schwartz said it might be time to consider saving money wherever possible to start addressing capital improvements, especially if the district intends to approach voters with a possible third bond proposal.
“Part of what we’re saying we want to teach these kids with technology is to learn multiple platforms. But we’re not doing that, and we’re doing it at a great expense to our budget and to other items,” he said. “It’s difficult to understand how we’re going to justify asking taxpayers to spend more money on a monthly basis when we’re not willing to look at sacrificing anything.”
Schwartz also suggested the district could realize additional technology savings by allowing students who have a personal device to use it for school, but said he wouldn’t necessarily support requiring all families to provide their own computer or tablet.
Hays High School Principal Marty Straub spoke in support of the technology committee’s recommendation, saying many students prefer the hands-on learning style offered by the touchscreen tablet option that would be available on the Dell model.
Straub also noted the school’s last technology purchase ended up not being the preferred computer model, as a less expensive option was chosen to save money.
“Regardless of device, this is how our kids learn and this is how our teachers teach. We have found the last two years, the highest ACT scores our school has had probably ever,” Straub said.
Straub also noted the high school has significant infrastructure needs that still could not be addressed if less expensive computers are chosen.
“I don’t think we can sacrifice instruction because we have great building needs,” he said. “The building needs we have are so great. I just don’t feel like I can say to you, ‘If you take $200,000, we can take care of our facility needs.’ … We just can’t do it. The windows and the doors in every one of our rooms, every one of our entryways leak.”
Board Chairman Lance Bickle agreed, but noted every bit of funding will be helpful for the district as it addresses various needs. He also said Chromebooks might be a more palatable choice than even a few years ago, as technology has become more Web-based.
“It’s not going to take care of everything. I don’t think anybody has that mindset just because we’re going to save, you know, $200,000 on here,” he said. “But it’s hard to argue with $200,000 is $200,000 that could be used for other needs in our district. I hope people also keep that in mind. We have to look at all aspects and not just technology.”
The high school’s current Microsoft computers performed poorly and experienced a variety of glitches, Summers said. The models are no longer in production.
Board member Sophia Rose Young spoke in support of the Dell models, but said the district’s poor experience with the last model purchased for the high school has made her “hesitant” to invest so heavily in a new product.
“In thinking back on how the board just bought the Surface, a whole bunch at once, and then it didn’t work, it makes me hesitant now to want to buy all the laptops at once and see if it works,” she said, asking if the district has considered a phased-in approach to “test-run” new technology.
Superintendent John Thissen said that suggestion has been discussed before, but the district is recommending to replace all of the computers simultaneously to stay on the capital improvement schedule and due to high maintenance costs for the current laptops.
After a lengthy discussion, no action was taken. The issue will be back on the agenda at the April 30 meeting, and board members requested Summers and the technology committee to report back at that time regarding why Chromebooks were not considered.
The board’s next meeting also will include more detailed information regarding the district’s current capital outlay funding and future projections.
In other business, the board:
Approved a bid for lighting improvements at Roosevelt Elementary School.
Voted to accept a non-renewal of contract for Raj Sharma, director of special education services.