Council balks at releasing school computer funds


The County Council last night postponed a decision to release $500,000 in seed money for a new computer system for county schools after it raised questions about the program's feasibility.

The council said it will take up the matter at its next meeting in two weeks. In the meantime, Board of Education staff will work to answer council members' questions, such as whether the system will become obsolete before installation is complete.

The council also expressed concern that releasing the $500,000 for the computer network -- dubbed ASAP, Advanced School Automation Project -- would commit the council that will be elected next month to the entire project.

The council approved the money in the current budget but tucked it away in a contingency fund until the board presented a detailed proposal for the pilot program, which would place at least one computer lab in each county school. In the plan presented to the council yesterday, the first phase of the computer network would be installed in the Arundel High School cluster.

Councilwoman Maureen Lamb, an Annapolis Democrat, made it clear that she was not impressed with the proposal, which the council saw an hour before the meeting began. "I've seen prototypes and plans that were much better than this," said Mrs. Lamb, who favored killing the bill last night and leaving the matter for the next council. "I'm very disappointed with what you gave us."

Part of what put the council in a bad mood was a revised price tag for installing the system over the next five years: $35 million, up from an earlier $17 million to $24 million estimate. School officials said the increase includes improvements to school facilities that will be necessary to install computer labs, including electrical upgrades, asbestos removal, wall installation and air conditioning.

"In a perfect world, the system would cost between $17 and $24 million," said James Hamilton, chairman of the ASAP task force. The lower figure includes the cost of the computer hardware, instructional materials and personnel.

Board member Joseph Foster said the council's concerns about obsolescence are valid, but have been taken into account. "I guarantee you whatever we put in today will be obsolete in five years," he said. "But the plan is to replace it over time," with such rotating replacement built into the project.

The council's postponement came despite pleas from board members and parents to release the money because there is a sense of urgency to bring county schools up to technological parity with other school systems. "It makes my stomach sick when I find out where my county is when it comes to technology," said Esther Parker, president of the Four Seasons Elementary School PTA. "I am begging you, please do not table the issue tonight."

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