Gov. Paul LePage considered shutting down Maine’s school laptop program last fall but was persuaded not to by his education commissioner.

Emails between Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen, his staff and the governor’s office indicate that LePage has been extremely skeptical of the Maine Learning Technology Initiative, which buys laptops for all public middle school students and negotiates low prices for school districts to lease laptops for high school students.

The Portland Press Herald obtained the emails as part of a public records request.

Maine’s multi-year contract with Apple to supply, support and maintain tens of thousands of laptops and the networks they rely on expires this year. As Bowen and his staff prepared last year to seek competitive bids for a new four-year contract, LePage told Bowen that he was not convinced they should do so.

Emails indicate that the governor was persuaded to let the process move forward only after being assured that he could “shut the whole thing down” if he didn’t like the bids.

The correspondence sheds new light on the weeks-long delay in the announcement of the winner of the new laptop contract this spring, as the governor’s office reviewed the bids.

The delay — and the surprise announcement that school districts could choose from any of five proposals — has caused anxiety and confusion for school officials, many of whom already had their budgets set.

LePage announced April 27 that he had selected a proposal centered around a Windows-based Hewlett-Packard laptop to replace what has been an Apple-based program. But he said schools also could choose from four rival bids — including Apple’s iPad and Macbook proposals — if they paid any costs above those of the HP laptop.

CONFUSION ON COSTS TO SCHOOLS

Continuing confusion over the end costs for school districts is making their budgeting and planning difficult. On Friday and Saturday, the state Department of Education surprised school districts by telling them they would have to pay tens of thousands of dollars in networking costs that are now funded by the state.

Technology officials in school districts say the state has previously covered the networking costs for high schools that buy into the laptop program, and state officials said repeatedly that would be the case under the new contract.

But they say the Education Department revised that position in emails sent Friday and Saturday, effectively making districts that choose iPads pay an additional $18.09 per student.

“This definitely came as a surprise,” said Andrew Wallace, director of technology for South Portland’s school department, and the change will raise his district’s costs by $55,000 over the life of the four-year contract. “It will definitely have a serious impact on our budget and is completely unexpected this late in the game,” Wallace said.

“All the documentation we had indicated that there wouldn’t be any network costs at the high school level,” said Dean Emmerson, director of information technology in the Bath area’s Regional School Unit 1. “Now we have to struggle to find $13,000 because our (school) budget can’t be increased at this point.”

Crystal Priest, technology coordinator for School Administrative District 4 in the Guilford area, said the change was unexpected and “puts a monkey wrench” into the district’s budget and professional planning. “At this point, we don’t even know when we’ll get the machines for teachers or even if student machines will be available at the start of the school year,” she said.

LePage administration officials said their position has been consistent, and school districts that plan to use iPads in high schools should have expected to pay additional network costs.

“We recognize and appreciate the fact that communities are making their budget decisions, and it is why (Department of Education) staff has worked to answer questions and will continue to ensure that districts have the information they need to choose the best path forward for their students,” said LePage’s spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett.

On Friday, the Education Department announced that Hewlett-Packard has improved its offer and will ship its ProBook 4440s with faster processors and more memory, although hard drive capacity will be reduced.

Education Department spokeswoman Samantha Warren said contracts with HP, Apple and CTC are still being finalized, “a process we hope to wrap up in June.”

In preparing for contract bidding last year, she said, “there was a healthy, thoughtful dialogue both internally at the department and with the governor’s office as to what would be best for Maine students and taxpayers.” The laptop program, she said, “needed to offer flexibility and … the solution needed to better align with the business world our schools are preparing students for.”

LePAGE OPPOSED LAPTOP PROGRAM

Emails acquired through public records requests show that LePage has been skeptical of the Maine Learning Technology Initiative, which was introduced more than a decade ago by Gov. Angus King. Bowen had to convince LePage of its value.

“The governor gets digital learning, but is not convinced the MLTI program is needed for that, as he sees digital learning mostly in terms of distance learning,” Bowen wrote in July to Jeff Mao, the Education Department official who oversees the program. “I think if we can develop a strong plan here, we have a chance with him. If not, you don’t need to bother working on the (request for proposals) for MLTI — he is not convinced it is making a difference.”

On Nov. 2, one week before the request for proposals was scheduled to be sent out, Bowen sent the governor a three-page pitch to let the program continue.

“I know you are not convinced that the laptop program is a worthwhile program,” Bowen wrote, but it should “continue in some form.”

Bowen argued that by buying in bulk, the program reduces costs for taxpayers, since schools have to buy computers one way or another, and the program gets the state “a good bang for the buck.”

“I get what you are saying about issues with students becoming too reliant on technology and the example you use of having to close Marden’s when the lights go out because nobody can make change,” Bowen said, but that is due more to “the overall ineffectiveness of the education system” than the technology, which is now as essential to schools as “electricity and heat.”

Bowen said he was not satisfied with how the program was being used in classrooms, noting that it had to be made “far more about the kids than about the grown-ups, who, in the districts where good things are NOT being done, are the biggest problem.”

The governor sent his memo back three days later, apparently with handwritten notes. The Press Herald has not obtained a copy of the governor’s reply, but in Bowen’s response he refers to the governor indicating “that he does not favor continuing the program as is,” leaving the commissioner to ask “does he want the state to have any role with regard (to) a statewide bulk-purchase of laptops, even if we just then make them available to districts to purchase with their own funds?”

Bowen said that if Maine dropped the current model, it would make technology unaffordable for poorer school districts and “make it hard for many districts to implement digital learning effectively.”

He also argued strenuously that the governor should allow the department to move forward with the request for proposals “and see what kinds of bids we get back.” He noted that it “commits us to nothing” and if “we’re not happy with the bids, we can shelve the whole thing then.”

“Let’s find out what (we) might be able to do with this program before we shut it down completely,” he wrote, making an argument that apparently won the day.

The emails are among more than 1,000 pages of correspondence acquired via public records requests. Some of the emails were requested by the Maine Education Association — a teachers union that opposes much of LePage’s education agenda — and provided to the Press Herald.

Bennett said Tuesday that LePage “was interested in learning more about the MLTI program and had multiple conversations with Commissioner Bowen relative to the best approach moving ahead with it.”

She said the governor “has no specific concerns with non-Windows systems” and “understands that the majority of systems used by businesses are Windows-based.”

Emails indicate that LaPage long wanted to get schools to replace their Apple computers with Windows-based ones.

In December 2011, Bowen wrote to LePage to respond to a comment “regarding moving to Microsoft Windows-based laptops” for the program.

Bowen explained that the state was then in the middle of its multi-year contract with Apple so it couldn’t “make any changes to the existing program right away.”

Bowen advised LePage that they would issue a new request for proposals in late 2012. “I will check with the (Attorney General’s) office, but I don’t think we can specify in the RFP which operating system the machines would have,” he wrote. “I think we lay out what we want the machines to do for kids and schools, and the bidders will come forward with whatever solution they have.”

Apple and other vendors “would complain that we were not conducting a truly open bid if we say the machines have to run a Windows operating system,” he wrote.

LePage ultimately chose the Windows-based HP laptop even though it was more expensive and had been scored significantly worse than the Apple iPad bid by the Education Department’s bid evaluators.

He noted that it was the lowest-priced Windows option, and that Windows is “commonly used in the workplace in Maine” and should therefore be the technology students use.

Colin Woodard can be contacted at 791-6317 or at:

cwoodard@pressherald.com 


Corrections: This story was revised at 9:41 a.m., May 29, 2013, to correct a quote by Adrienne Bennett regarding non-Windows operating systems.

This story was revised at 7:24 a.m., May 29, 2013, to state that the Education Department’s revised policy will raise South Portland School Department’s cost for using iPads by $55,000 over the life of the four-year contract, according to Andrew Wallace, the department’s director of technology.

The story also was revised to correctly quote Education Department spokeswoman Samantha Warren, who said the laptop program “needed to offer flexibility and … the solution needed to better align with the business world our schools are preparing students for.”