Archive for Monday, November 26, 2001

Schools eager for wireless revolution

Budget crisis may delay district’s technology plan

November 26, 2001


Deerfield School students and teachers will soon begin an experiment in academic mobility using new wireless computers.

The big question will be whether 15 new Dell laptops an identical set is bound for East Heights School offer more learning options than a traditional, stationary computer lab.

Deerfield School sixth-grader Paige Blevins works in the school's
computer lab. Next year the school will change to a wireless lab,
so students can take computers into classrooms.

Deerfield School sixth-grader Paige Blevins works in the school's computer lab. Next year the school will change to a wireless lab, so students can take computers into classrooms.

"We put in for it," said Deerfield Principal Suzie Soyster. "We're going to see if it's more flexible."

This $60,000 investment in hardware is part of the Lawrence public school district's $1.5 million goal to upgrade computer systems at all its elementary schools.

The initiative is a key piece of the district's new technology plan. The plan calls for spending $3.12 million on computer hardware and $1.29 million on computer software by the end of the school year in 2004.

The $4.4 million package would complete replacement of elementary computer labs, upgrade computers in secondary schools, support operation of a fiber-optic network and allow consolidation of the district's computer servers. Software purchases would fall into three areas: networking, administrative and curricular.

"This is our vision for really getting at integration of technology in the classroom," said Supt. Randy Weseman.

However, this high-tech blueprint might not be worth the paper it's printed on.

"We understand that the plan is contingent on budget availability," said Mike Eltschinger, the Lawrence district's director of instructional computing.

And the financial health of Kansas government, already straining under an economic slowdown, is threatened by a projected $113 million revenue shortfall this fiscal year. Gov. Bill Graves said he would ask the 2002 Legislature to raise taxes, but election-year politics make that an unpopular option.

Weseman said it was possible that legislators would actually trim appropriations to Kansas public school districts. And, because large expenditures such as teacher salaries are generally off-limits, cash-strapped local school boards would have to cut spending by placing a disproportionate share of the burden on support programs, he said.

School technology a new kid on the budget block could be hit hard.

"It all really depends on the Legislature," Eltschinger said.

Indeed, lawmakers in other states are already slashing technology programs.

Florida, facing a $1.3 billion deficit, scrapped a $10 million program designed to figure out how computers and other technologies could improve student academic achievement.

In Georgia, a $1 million program designed to provide new classroom computers is on the block. The governor wants to shave 2.5 percent from the state's budget.

Closer to home in Iowa, one-third of a $30 million technology education program was cut.

Sue Morgan, Lawrence's school board president, said the district remained committed to making technology a bigger component of classroom learning. Computers can make teachers more effective and make studying more exciting to students, she said.

"Curriculum development is a major element of the plan," she said.

The long-term success of the district's technology plan hinges on identification of solid funding sources, Eltschinger said.

He said much of the budget for computers and related equipment would continue to be drawn from the district's general operating fund. Supplemental funding can be secured through state or federal grants, but that source is unpredictable.

Broadening local business-education partnerships devoted to computer acquisition may have potential, he said.

Eltschinger also raised the possibility of generating money for technology by including it in a future bond issue voted on by district patrons. The school board will likely put a new bond issue before voters in 2002.

"Our costs have gone up," he said. "We're stretched thin already. There's a lot of uncertainty to this."

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