A request to spend $2.1 million to purchase more than 4,000 laptop computers for all Harford County Public Schools fifth- and eighth-graders was hotly debated — but ultimately approved — by the Harford County Board of Education earlier this week.
The contract with Dell Marketing LP, of Round Rock, Texas, is to purchase laptops for the upcoming 2017-18 school year, the first year of a four-year plan to equip all HCPS students with their own electronic devices, Drew Moore, director of technology, told school board members Monday night.
"We will subsequently roll to the following years provided there is funding available," Moore said.
The availability of future funding was a sticking point, however, for board members Robert Frisch and Al Williamson.
"I have some apprehensions here," Frisch said.
He noted the board had to eliminate 36 teaching positions to help balance its operating budget for next year and that County Executive Barry Glassman has made it clear that "the vast lion's share" of any additional local revenue should go toward improving teachers' salaries.
The school board also has a three-year agreement, which is in effect through 2019, with the teachers' union, the Harford County Education Association, to fund annual salary step increases and cost-of-living allowances so teachers can get caught up after years of salary freezes and be competitive salary-wise with surrounding jurisdictions.
"We're already at a point where we are stretched, in my view, dangerously thin," Frisch said of the HCPS finances.
In late May, Moore had to defend the planned student computer purchases to the Harford County Council, when he requested the Council's approval to transfer $2.1 million in savings within the HCPS fiscal 2017 budget to buy the computers. Such transfers among school budget categories require County Council approval.
The council eventually approved the transfer request, but only after intense lobbying from Superintendent Barbara Canavan and other school leaders, and with a caveat that the council receive copies of all invoices from purchases with the funds.
As with Frisch and Williamson, council members questioned the impact on teaching positions and pay, while one council member, who did vote against the transfer, questioned the wisdom of using operating funds to buy computers.
"I think this move is fraught with danger," Frisch said.
He said school officials in neighboring counties are questioning whether a 1:1 student-to-device ratio is a good idea, considering the cost, and said he wants to see more "scientific validation" of the value for students.
Moore acknowledged the purchase is a "large-ticket item," but he stressed the need for students to have up-to-date technology that they can use both in the classroom and for state standardized tests.
"I would say, do you want a system that is status quo, [or] do you want a forward-thinking system?" he asked Frisch.
Williamson asked Moore about the four-year plan and how school system officials plan to fund the purchases each year — there are about 37,500 HCPS students.
Moore replied that "this is a fluid plan, based on funding."
Williamson likewise was concerned about a lack of a "sustainable" plan for future funding.
"I am in favor of the purchase, but I am also in favor of the board being more involved in our plan to address this in the next year," he said.
Board member Laura Runyeon noted, however, that even if funds were not available for future years, schools would still have 4,000 devices available when older devices need to be replaced.
Moore said his office has worked with Dell for years and was able to get "very aggressive pricing" per computer. HCPS is paying $523 per device, devices that would normally sell for $700 each, he said.
He said the school-based computer labs would be phased out as more students get individual devices. Students will use those devices in the same manner as existing desktop computers, under the supervision of teachers.
In 2015, HCPS implemented a "bring your own technology" program through which high school students could use their own smartphones, tablets or laptops in the classroom.
"We also realize that BYOT does not solve our testing situation, and many kids do not have a device to bring," Moore said.
Board member Jansen Robinson asked how soon Moore would need approval by the board for the purchase. Moore said it would be needed that evening so he could start the purchase process and have the devices available by the start of school in early September.
Canavan also stressed the need for quick approval.
"We need to get these devices in the hands of our teachers and the hands of our students as soon as we can," she said.
A motion by Frisch to take the contract out of the board's consent agenda, under which numerous contracts are approved as a group, for a separate vote failed. He cast the only affirmative vote.
The full consent agenda, contract included, was then approved, 9-0. Board member Joseph Hau was absent.