The Baltimore County school board approved a $140 million technology contract Tuesday night that would expand its four-year-old technology initiative into its high schools.
The county is one of the first districts in the state to provide every student with a free laptop to use at school and for the older students to take home.
In its first year, the contract would replace the four-year-old devices that teachers have now with new ones and would expand the laptops to every high schooler. Kindergarten classrooms have devices, but they are not given to each child.
The seven to four vote came after a divisive meeting that included insults and shouts across the room by board members. A minority of the board members — Ann Miller, Kathleen Causey, Julie Henn and Roger Hayden — questioned staff on the expense. Hayden abstained.
Miller accused the staff of changing numbers on the costs of the computers under the contract. At one point Miller said, “It is starting to look like Dr. Dance’s financial disclosure reports.” Her reference was to the former superintendent Dallas Dance, who has pleaded guilty to perjury for failing to accurately fill out his financial disclosure reports. The audience at the board meeting groaned.
“There is no confusion. The numbers do add up. ... The numbers have been the same. They are real. Any other suggestion is untrue,” said interim Superintendent Verletta White.
After the exchange, Miller seemed to be satisfied with some of the answers she received.
School board member Charles McDaniels said he couldn’t imagine a high school student today getting an education without technology. “Many students and families don’t have the technology resources to allow them to compete,” he said.
He said he did share concerns about elementary students spending too much time on computers and about students breaking through the security system to get to inappropriate internet sites. He said visits to schools reassured him.
Board members Causey and Henn said they believed the laptops were more expensive and elaborate than was needed, particularly for elementary school students.
Henn said other school systems were buying Chromebooks for far less money than the county school system would be spending on its devices. She voted no because she said it was not fiscally responsible.
The seven-year contract would provide new computers to students on a rolling basis. When their laptops are four years old, students would turn them in for new ones, paid for under the new contract.
Each computer will cost $1,053, a reduction from the $1,367 a computer cost of the older contract signed in 2014. The cost to lease the devices includes staff to repair and service each of the laptops.
The move to give every child a laptop has drawn both support and controversy for the past several years. Advocates believe it has provided educational equality to students who don’t have access to technology in the county. Slightly less than half of students have a family income low enough to get a subsidized lunch, and the devices have been popular in some low-income areas.
Even critics support the use of technology in schools, but say the current $205 million, seven-year contract that was awarded in 2014 has been too expensive and has forced the school system to cut back on other expenses, including cutting school budgets and raising some class sizes. They point to examples of students breaking through firewalls and getting into inappropriate sites. When computers break, they say students sometimes wait days and weeks to get their devices repaired.
Some parents also say they don’t want young children spending too much time in front of a device and not enough time learning from a teacher.
At the last school board meeting on March 6, the teachers union president said the school system was in danger of violating its agreement with the teachers unless it voted quickly to approve the contract immediately. Teachers are supposed to be given a number of months to get used to new technology before they have to use it.
In addition, the union president, Abby Beytin, said the leased devices would be taken away from teachers in June, leaving them with no devices at all, a situation she called “unimaginable.” Teachers are now dependent on the devices to access curriculum, enter grades and communicate with students and parents.
School administrators also pushed hard to get the school board to accept the contract in the March meeting, the first time it had been presented to the board for consideration.The board delayed, however, with members saying they had more questions and needed more time to consider such a large expenditure. In the intervening weeks, administrators have said that under the existing contract with Daly Computers, teachers would not have to give up their computers if the school board spent $800,000 to buy the computers they have been leasing. If the board decided not to approve the new contract, she said, buying the old computers and servicing them would cost about $11 million next year.
But White, in a letter to the school board and others, said she does not recommend that course because it would cost more in the long term because the computers are no longer being made and would require repairs over time. “Those devices would be obsolete” with no warranty or parts, said White when asked about the issue at the meeting.
The school system points to achievement gains in schools that have had the devices the longest.
The school board often seems split on technology, with four members calling for more scrutiny of the achievement data or asking if the computers are too expensive for a school system that doesn’t have enough social workers and teachers.