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Chatham school board considers spending $2 million on Apple's proprietary technology during tough economic times

By Mia Munn
Posted Saturday, June 12, 2010

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Pittsboro, NC - Last Monday's board meeting included a topic "A Vision for a Total Digital Learning Environment for Chatham County Schools. The meeting agenda included the link to a presentation that I believe was made to the county commissioners but not shown at the school board meeting.

Here is the meeting summary (issued by the district) on this topic: The Board discussed a vision for a total digital learning environment in the district. Three options were discussed for the next phase of the district's instructional technology program: 1) Replace student laptop computers at Chatham Central, Northwood and SAGE which are several years old. (Jordan-Matthews received new laptops this school year thanks to a Golden LEAF Foundation grant.) 2) Replace the laptops at the high schools in option 1 and issue an iPad to students in grades 6-8. (Margaret B. Pollard Middle School will open with extensive technology resources.) 3) Place a digital device in the hands of every student in the district, likely laptops for high school students and iPads in kindergarten-eighth grade. (Jordan-Matthews would not receive new laptops in option 3 because theirs were new in 2009.)

NOTES: These options also include some other aspects such as staff development, replacement of some staff computers, and infrastructure. The district would need to redirect some of its existing resources, utilize community support and resources as well as multiple funding streams. The financial commitment would start in the 2011-2012 budget cycle. The Board decided it will propose option three to the Chatham County Board of Commissioners. This option would place a digital device in the hands of all students in the district.

"I'd rather have a smart teacher than a smart board"

Below is my recap of the discussion, and my thoughts.Mr. Logan really wants Chatham to move to a "total digital learning environment" over the next 2 years. This would involve 3 parts:1. Refreshing the laptops at Chatham Central, Northwood, and SAGE (a "must-do" since many are 5 years old) with leased macbooks. Apple would give us a four year lease to own for 1,561 laptops for three payments of $591,000, with the first payment due in the 2011-12 school year. They say this is a 5% discount with no interest on the first year, and also includes some teacher training.

2. Providing iPads to all 6-8 students. (I asked the Apple reps as they were leaving if the students would take these home or keep them at school, and they did not know what was planned.) Mr. Logan originally suggested piloting this at Chatham Middle, Horton, and Pollard, for 3 payments of ~$200,000 (same terms - four year lease to own, first payment due 2nd year). Mr. Leonard expressed concern about doing a pilot, that it wouldn't be fair to the other middle school students, so the board went with all schools at one time. Mr. Logan will have to get the cost for all middle schools.

3. Providing iPads to all K-5 students (same terms).

Doing all three parts would cost $1.9 million per year for three years (starting the second year of the four year lease to own). At the end of the four years, it would be time to refresh again, so this would basically be a cost every year. (Actually, after the first cycle it would be more, since we would also need to replace the 800 laptops at Jordan-Matthews).

Mr. Logan made a presentation to the county commissioners this morning and he said they were in "total support".

Mr. Logan acknowledged that we are in tight economic times, and that we are facing the loss of $3+ million in federal stimulus funding in 2011-12, but he wanted to go ahead now. He said they could redirect some current funding, use textbook funds, ask the PTAs to pay some of the costs (since they already buy technology for schools), and apply for grants to get the funds. Ms. Russell pointed out that it would help in recruiting good teachers and aid in economic development. It would also help Chatham get county-wide internet (funded through grants). Ms. Russell also said the price was a good deal, so we should jump on it.

Mr. Logan said the district would move away from traditional textbooks. Someone (Ms. McManus?) asked about costs for ebooks (instead of hard copy textbooks). Ms. Russell asserted that they would be less, though neither Mr. Logan nor the Apple reps knew how etextbooks are priced. (Note, there are no funds for textbooks in the state budget for next year. Typically, we get about $800,000 for textbooks each year.) Mr. Stensland said one Biology class is at Chatham Central is all done with wikis (no textbook) and had good test results. Mr. O'brien suggested that teachers could use open source content, and it would just be a matter of someone finding what is available. (I've looked online - there is a massive amount of material, but most not in readily usable format for an entire course.)

Mr. Logan said there was already a plan for training all the teachers, developed with the Friday Center, and it was "just a matter of scheduling". (Note, in the state budget there are no funds for professional development, all local funds for professional development next year are cut, and the district budget cuts 11 months of employment for Instructional Facilitators and nine months of employment for curriculum coaches, the two types of positions that teach professional development to teachers.) Some training would also be provided by Apple.

Mr. O'brien expressed his concern. He said "I'd rather have a smart teacher than a smart board", pointing out that technology is less important that good teachers. He also said that the cost of technology always goes down in future years, so the deal is not that great.

The board told Mr. Logan to ask the commissioners to find this funding.

Mia Munn is a former educator who ran for the Chatham County school board in 2008.

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Chatham school board considers spending $2 million on Apple's proprietary technology during tough economic times
Apple sales reps are pushing Chatham County to spend $2 million on their proprietary hardware.
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