Educators stress need for tech mill levy
GRANBY —This November, voters will have the option to approve technology funding at East Grand Schools.
Technology Mill 3A, if approved, would eventually provide each student an iPad tablet computer. With a tax amounting to about $5 per every $100,000 in home values, the mill levy would create $1.2 million in school technology funding over the course of three years. But district officials want the community to understand the initiative isn’t about giving students a trendy new toy. Instead, the iPads provide the most economical means for schools to keep pace with technology.
‘A cost-effective solution’
With the economy taking a hit over the last five years, the school district’s finances have also been pinched. From 2009 to 2011, fiscal year spending fell by greater than 5 percent. The school district was able to bumper is budget in 2012 by receiving some back taxes and this year by dipping into reserves. But its budget for technology programs took a hit.
“In 2009, our budgets cut to nothing. The technology budget is gone,” said Kery Harrelson, technology coordinator for East Grand Schools. “We’re looking to fund technology, not necessarily iPads – but iPads just happen to be the cheapest, most effective way of doing what we need to do.”
According to Superintendent Jody Mimmack, there’s no longer a budget available to maintain even existing computer labs and technology.
“Those machines, those systems are so old, and we don’t have the budget to replace them,” Mimmack said.
Beyond simple maintenance and machine replacement, Harrelson said schools have reached a point where there’s often not enough lab space to accommodate demand.
“I’ve seen an instance where there was a class spread out between two labs,” he said. “We’ve outstripped demand and there’s nowhere else to put a lab.”
IPads offer district officials an opportunity to bring the “lab” to each individual classroom and each individual student, providing a computer they can use both at school and at home.
“We can either go the way we’re going now with the lab environment, or for the same price, you can go to one where you provide iPads and technology to each kid all day, and really, all night,” Harrelson said.
Still, the initiative has caused some community members to question why the district has decided to use iPads instead of cheaper devices, like Google and Android tablets.
“The important thing on the cost, and this is really important, is that it’s not just about buying a tablet,” said district board member Chip Besse. “Buying a tablet out of the $1.2 million budget is just a portion of it. The remaining goes to training, infrastructure improvements, all the other things we’re working on.”
As Mimmack explained, the school district decided years ago to use an Apple operating system for all its computers. Changing that system would add more costs that are tough to justify. In addition, Apple’s products have more applications and programs geared toward education, making them a better tool in schools.
And most importantly, iPads don’t require Internet access to operate, Besse said, unlike Android tablets.
“We have to worry about every student in the district, and you can’t assume every kid has Internet access at their house,” Besse said. “We can’t put them in a disadvantaged situation.”
With the iPads, students can download apps and homework while at school, then take the tablets home to do their homework offline, if needed.
The district has also developed a careful implementation plan, rolled out over the course of three years. Instead of every student district-wide receiving an iPad on the first day of school, the first round will go to the middle school in year one. In the meantime, the district will work on infrastructure improvements and staff training. By year three, all students will have an iPad and all schools will have the foundation to support them.
“Other tablets might be cheaper, but when you look at the total cost, and every kid and their situations at home, what the platform that the district is on, it’s not the cheapest option, not even close,” Besse said.
An evolution, not a revolution
The district emphasizes that iPads are an important tool in teaching children modern technological skills they may need in life.
“When I was in high school, to do research I went to a library and got an encyclopedia or I looked in a journal,” Mimmack said. “It’s not a revolution. The evolution of how kids do research, how kids access information, is now on the computer.”
As educational technology continues to change, Mimmack said she believes the tablets will replace the district’s need to pay for class sets of textbooks, dictionaries, encyclopedias and even graphing calculators. It will give students the ability to easily study primary-source documents.
“So instead of a textbook about the Constitution, you actually go to the Web and read the Constitution,” MImmack said. “It’s really about having a 21st Century tool meet 21st Century expectations.”
Another concern Mimmack commonly hears from the community is that by integrating all this technology, students will lose basic skills like penmanship, drawing and graphing. But those skills will continue to be an important part of curriculum, she said.
“The iPad is a tool like a pencil, like a calculator, like a book,” Mimmack said. “When do we use the tool? When do we not use the tool? Is the tool going to help us learn this concept?”
The point of the iPads, district officials say, is to put more resources in the classroom. And it helps the district in meeting its goal of being a “district of distinction.”
“The message we want to get out to the community is that we have an excellent education system and technology is a pillar of that education system,” Besse said. “We’re not educating well if we can’t deliver on that pillar.”
The mill levy tax would only be in effect over the three years the district anticipates needing to fully implement the iPad program. But, as district officials stress, if the 2013 mill levy isn’t approved, it leaves schools with virtually no technology funding at all.
“People believe in our schools, they believe in our kids, they understand that today’s student will likely have a job that didn’t exist when we were kids,” Mimmack said. “To not have this mill pass will take our school district backward, and that’s bad for everyone.”
Leia Larsen can be reached at 970-887-3334 ext. 19603.
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