News Column

Wichita school leaders seek to level the technological playing field

June 27, 2014

By Suzanne Perez Tobias, The Wichita Eagle



June 27--There are about 30,000 computers in Wichita public school classrooms, libraries and testing centers.

But students' access to those computers -- whether the machines are available, working, updated and upgraded -- often depends on which school a student attends.

Because of cuts in state funding over the past several years, technology upgrades "have been to a large extent left up to the building budgets," Wichita superintendent John Allison told school board members this week.

"So what we see is inequity from building to building on computer-to-student ratios, as well as the age of those computers," he said. "It's something we're definitely going to have to address."

Officials are hoping a boost in capital outlay funding this year will allow the district to level the playing field among schools and get the district back on a regular, five-year replacement cycle for student computers.

"That doesn't seem very long," Allison said. "But in technology life, that's about 50 years."

Jim Freeman, chief financial officer for the Wichita district, told school board members he plans to build the 2014-15 budget based on a capital outlay mill levy of 8 mills -- the maximum allowed and nearly twice the current rate of 4.25 mills -- but will prioritize expenses in case board members opt to set the levy lower.

That increase would pump nearly $17.4 million into the district's capital outlay budget, Freeman said. The district's overall mill levy still would be reduced by about 2 mills because of a new school finance bill that is expected to send millions of dollars to school districts.

Among possible expenses the board will consider are $4.8 million worth of student computers, $1.5 million for staff computers, about $1.3 million in software and $900,000 for wireless infrastructure.

"What we've seen in the past is that we just have not been adequately funded to even plan" for regular technology upgrades, Freeman said. "So ... we have principals and staff members trying to make choices on a very limited budget on who gets a new computer and who doesn't.

"I think what we have to do is identify some funding streams so we can do some planning," he said. "With computer technology, you have to have an adequate budget to continually refresh or change."

Allison, the superintendent, said cuts to capital outlay funding from the state -- about $4 million to $5 million a year since 2009 -- meant the district had to stretch out its replacement cycle for student and staff computers.

Some principals made up for shortfalls by purchasing computers or software out of their discretionary building budgets. Some schools held fundraisers or applied for grants. Others got upgrades using federal Title 1 money targeted to low-income schools.

"As we look at those aspects, how do we make sure we don't get too far out of whack?" Allison said. "What I'd like to do is pull that out from the buildings having to worry about, and let's look at it as a district and how we're going to approach that systemically."

Over the years, Allison said, the district has targeted upgrades to areas "where the computer is necessary for the class," such as computer programming, high school yearbook, photo imaging or computer graphics classes. Another priority has been computers for annual state assessment tests, which are completed online.

Beyond that, "we've tried to close those gaps" among school buildings, replacing and upgrading computers as funds allowed, Allison said.

"You defer those types of purchases, and then we reach a point where you no longer can defer them," he said. "If you don't have some type of cycle in place, you get to a point where we couldn't afford to replace everything that we'd need."

In coming weeks, as they develop next year's budget, board members will have to weigh technology against other expenses, including security enhancements, telephone upgrades and general building maintenance. The district also is planning a pilot project with Chromebooks in some classrooms, Allison said.

Board member Joy Eakins said a districtwide, five-year replacement cycle for computers isn't ideal, but it's better than the current system, which can vary widely from school to school.

"It's not about the number of computers per student across the district. It's really around equity, that every student has equal access," she said.

"We're talking about (Windows) XP computers still in our students' hands today, when the business community and homes would not have those because of the security risk," she said. "We really are putting our students at a disadvantage ... when they don't have access to the technology."

Reach Suzanne Perez Tobias at 316-268-6567 or stobias@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @suzannetobias.

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(c)2014 The Wichita Eagle (Wichita, Kan.)

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Source: Wichita Eagle (KS)


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