After last year’s $275,000 paring of the technology line of the budget, the RSU 20 Board of Directors learned Tuesday, April 10, the district might need to make up for that lack of spending this year in the name of keeping up.

At a budget workshop that was solely dedicated to the topic of technology at Belfast Area High School, RSU 20 Technology Director Bob Bradford discussed district-wide needs in that area. And while the needs for upgraded hardware like newer laptops for students and teachers is included in his budget request for 2012-13, Bradford also advocated for more staff.

At a straw poll that the directors took at the close of the workshop, 10 of the 15 directors present indicated support for Bradford’s proposal, but the entire 2012-13 budget remains a work-in-progress and the poll does not indicate acceptance of the technology proposal.

Pressing needs

The need for more staff, specifically technology integrators, is especially dire at the K-5 level, Bradford said, as those professionals are often charged with developing professional development plans, supporting teachers in creating lesson plans that include technology components.

“Staff and students are not receiving the services they desire at the K-5 level,” said Bradford.

And at Troy Howard Middle School, Bradford said the needs are equally great.

“We have one technology integrator at Troy Howard Middle School, and there are more than 500 devices in the building,” said Bradford, adding that his reference to devices includes laptops and desktop computers.

Bradford also suggested the district hire a data manager to manage the First Class server, which maintains school websites, as well as the information system known as Infinite Campus. While Infinite Campus is a free service provided by the state, Bradford said in-house technology staff routinely checks the accuracy of the data presented there.

“The technology integrator at Belfast Area High School is serving in that capacity now, and it leaves them no time to serve Belfast Area High School,” said Bradford.

At Ames and Weymouth schools, Bradford said, there are not enough computers in the school to allow all students from one grade level to use computers at the same time. Weymouth School, added Bradford, is also in need of a network upgrade.

At Searsport District High School, Bradford said district needs to replace the circa-2006 computers that ninth-graders are now using. Bradford said, for example, SDHS uses Rosetta Stone to teach foreign languages and the current computers are not allowing the freshmen access to the program.

“Rosetta Stone will not run on the laptops at Searsport District High School,” said Bradford.

Looking at the technology budget for this year, Bradford said the $275,000 in cuts the board made to help balance the budget included the paring of $185,000 worth of hardware and software upgrades and $20,000 in staff cuts.

For 2012-13, Bradford said the total $384,000 proposed technology line increase represents a significantly lower figure than what he initially planned to present to the board. Bradford removed a $128,000 expense that was to be used to purchase interactive whiteboards and instead plans to purchase a few interactive projectors to try them out next year; items Bradford said are about half the cost of whiteboards. Bradford also cut the cost of replacing the 2005 and 2006-issued laptops for K-5 staff, an expense that was pulled from the 2011-12 proposal, and made other adjustments such as reducing the renewals of some software and online subscriptions.

Looking ahead

Bradford also brought forth potential solutions for providing more computers for the district and also making the devices within the district fleet more modern. The laptops that came to seventh and eighth-graders through the Maine Learning Technology Initiative will be available for the district to purchase in June 2013, and will be sold at a cost of about $48 per device (about $25,500 to buy all of the machines that are currently in use). Those computers could potentially go to district sixth-graders, and the 2006 laptops the sixth-graders now use could be passed down to the K-5 level. That move, said Bradford, would replace K-5 computers, many of which were manufactured in 2003.

For grades 9-12, Bradford said enacting a bring-your-own-device option for students might be a workable solution.

“Sustaining the laptop program continues to be a budgetary challenge,” said Bradford.

For students who do not own laptops and cannot afford to buy them, Bradford suggested the district either maintain a pool of computers that could be used by those students or offer a stipend to each of those students that would go toward the cost of buying their own.

But there are challenges that would come with the “BYOD” concept, said Bradford, including the need to establish a separate in-school network for the sole use of outside devices to protect the integrity of the school network. Bradford said the differing preferences that students may have for various programs and software might also be a problem because ideally, teachers would want students to use the same programs so instruction provided is consistent. And then there’s the question of how best to troubleshoot and repair non-RSU computers, he noted.

Cutting costs, at what cost?

Following the presentation, Director Darren Philbrick lent his support for Bradford’s proposal.

“I don’t want to spend a lot of time tonight discussing whether or not technology is important,” he said. “If that’s what you think you might as well pack your stuff up and go back to your cave.”

Director Tony Bagley asked Bradford if purchasing tablets like iPads might be a good alternative to buying laptops, but Bradford said tablets are slightly more costly than the Netbooks he is considering. Also, Bradford said tablets are not fully functioning personal computers.

Director Orya Shomron asked Bradford to offer examples of how last year’s budget cuts, particularly at the K-5 level, adversely impacted the teachers’ ability to educate students with the use of technology.

“We’re getting reports from the staff that they don’t get to see the technology integrator very often,” said Bradford.

Weymouth and Ames schools Principal Laura Miller said the Weymouth kindergarten class has 22 students, and the teacher there struggles just to get all of the computers powered up and ready for a classroom lesson.

“By the time they get the first two [students] set up and they move on to the next ones, the first two are already saying, ‘I need help,'” said Miller.

Ames School teacher and technology committee member Claudia Luchetti said for her, it’s a matter of time, not lack of know-how.

“I like to think I’m a fairly technology friendly person,” she said. “… I just don’t have the time to spend figuring out projects for my students.”

When the district had more technology support staff at the K-5 level, Luchetti said she was able to lean on them to learn a program or project, go over it once, and then share it with her students. Without that support this year, Luchetti said, she has not been able to offer any new projects because the support hasn’t been there.

“I’m using what I had help with last year,” she said.

Luchetti said once one teacher knows about a particular program or project, they often take it upon themselves to teach their colleagues how to do it, too.

Director Alexa Schweikert said her main concern is keeping the playing field even for all students, no matter what their economic situation might be.

Director Chris Krause said it’s important to remember budget cuts aren’t always the wisest choice if it means a drop in productivity, such as what is happening this year as the result of the budget cuts last year.

“And what happened? We actually decreased productivity,” he said. “We’ve got to start to break even, or increase productivity by spending money.”

Shomron continued with his questions, asking Bradford what skills students and teachers need to be successful, and what the technology program should look like three to five years down the road. After some back-and-forth on that topic, Board Chairman Jean Dube opened the floor up to other directors and Superintendent Bruce Mailloux explained why Shomron’s detailed line of questioning was inappropriate for the purposes of the workshop.

“You can’t put people on the spot like that,” Mailloux said.

Some directors indicated they wanted to see a more detailed budget proposal, and Bradford agreed to email each director a copy of his PowerPoint presentation. Mailloux told directors to call the Central Office if they wanted to see the technology proposal, line-by-line.

Director Valerie Mank said while she would love all students to have the best technology at their fingertips, she reminded the board of the budget gap that needs to be closed for the coming year.

“Let’s think back to the finance committee meeting [we had] an hour ago,” she said. “Two million dollars in the red.”

Reporter Tanya Mitchell can be reached at 338-3333 or tmitchell@villagesoup.com.