The Baltimore County school board voted Tuesday night to approve one of its largest contracts in recent years, an ambitious $205 million plan to supply laptop computers to the system's 150,000 students and teachers over the next seven years.
The school system will lease HP EliteBook Revolves, the centerpiece of Superintendent Dallas Dance's initiative to put a laptop in the hands of every student in the next several years.
Dance said the school system will pay for the computers in part with savings from centralizing the purchase and operation of printers, copiers and other technology, and by evaluating whether central office employees who leave the school system should be replaced.
"There are still some critical questions we have to answer," Dance said. He said the system can get out of the contract if it is unable to find the money to buy the laptops.
The school system will spend $6.8 million next school year to supply all teachers and students in grades one through three in 10 elementary schools with the devices. That money is already allocated in the budget. But in the third, fourth and fifth years of the contract, as the program expands to other schools, the annual expense will rise to between $37 million and $50 million.
The school system's operating budget is $1.4 billion a year. It spends about $565 million on instructional salaries and benefits.
Yara Cheikh, a parent who is active in the community, said she wanted more specifics.
"A detailed explanation of how we are going to pay for the payments of over $30 million per year after year 2 have to be answered before we commit tax dollars to this program," she wrote in an email.
"The digital conversion is not the issue, what and who gets cut to pay for it is the issue. Clearly, we need to move forward and keep pace with technology, but a greater investment is needed to fund this, not further cuts into an already anemic operating budget with projected increased school enrollment over the next ten years."
Montgomery County-based Daly Computers Inc., which has technology contracts with the state and other school systems in Maryland, won the contract.
Richard Gay, manager of the school system's purchasing office, said the system requested proposals from vendors. Three companies met the criteria that the school system established, but it entered into negotiations only with Daly, which offered Hewlett-Packard. The other companies that submitted proposals were Apple and Dell.
Daly will supply the devices, which convert to tablets, and the software for the system. While Daly has contracts to provide some computers and copiers to other school systems, it has never been involved in a digital conversion such as the one on which the county is about to embark, according to school spokesman Mychael Dickerson.
Lloyd Brown, head of the school system's technology department, told members during a hearing Tuesday that he had discussed the pitfalls and successes of a digital conversion with other school districts who have undertaken similar projects.
"We are on the front end of a national trend, but we are not the outlier," said board member Edward Gilliss.
The contract commits the school system only to spending $6.8 million a year for the next four years. Dance said if the school system decides it does not want to continue with the same devices or vendor, it can sever the agreement.
"It is not a rush process. We are going to take our time with it," he said. "Let's say we evaluate the vendor and things are not going well. There are outs for this."
The school system "will not be doing anything further if we don't get the Lighthouse schools right," Dance told the full school board at its meeting Tuesday night. Those first 10 schools, he said, "will be laboratory schools. We will not be scaling up until we get success with our Lighthouse schools."
Dance said that the contract has the benefit of locking in a price if the laptops cost more in the future. But board member Charles McDaniels Jr. pointed out that the price might actually decrease, leaving the system to pay more than it might otherwise.
Under the contract, the school system will give 8,500 teachers the EliteBooks by the end of this school year. Each teacher will also get a docking station and a 24-inch monitor.
At the beginning of next school year, 2,700 students in the first 10 elementary schools will get the devices.