April 26, 2013

Laptop delay stalls Maine school plans

As the Governor's Office holds off on approving the large purchase, districts are facing budget deadlines and training uncertainties.

By Colin Woodard cwoodard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

A weeks-long delay in the awarding of the next contract for Maine's school laptop program is causing anxiety for school officials who are up against their own budget and planning deadlines.

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The state's delay in contracting for school laptop computers is putting some school districts in a budgetary bind.

2012 Staff File Photo

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The state is negotiating a contract to buy tens of thousands of laptop computers and related training, repair and support services for its program, the Maine Technology Learning Initiative.

This year, Maine is leading a multistate contracting effort that is also open to Hawaii and Vermont. The combined contracts are likely to be worth more than $200 million.

The delay in making a final award for Maine has created a difficult situation for school districts, most of which have finalized their budgets for the year that starts July 1 or will do so in the next week or two.

The state Department of Education selected five semifinalists earlier this year and hoped to announce the winner of the Maine portion of the contract in late February or March. School districts' technology officials say they expected a decision by late March.

But the list of semifinalists remains with the Governor's Office, which has not made a final decision.

"All contracts above a certain size have to be approved by the Governor's Office," said Education Department spokesman David Connerty-Marin. "We have been working with them to come up with the right solution. It's a very large contract that we will be working with for at least four years, so obviously we want to make sure we work it through."

Kerry Gallivan, technology director for School Administrative District 75, which serves Topsham and three neighboring towns, said Thursday that "we're wrapping up the final vote on the budget this evening in our district, and I've yet to be able to present to the school board any sense of what is going to be the final price point for new devices and what resources will be needed for professional development if it's going to be a new device.

"It's so late in the process that there's now speculation that there might not be any devices at all," he said.

Under the laptop program, the state pays to provide computers to every seventh- and eighth-grader in Maine. Districts that provide laptops to students in other grades pay for the computers themselves, along with maintenance and repairs, and that cost can be significant.

"It's very difficult to stand up in a presentation to the public and to have to tell them I can't say how much these devices will cost and what kind they will be," said Dean Emmerson, director of technology for Regional School Unit 1, which serves Bath and three other towns. "The answers to these questions affect whether we'll be able to participate at the high school level or not."

Many districts are worried that if the state doesn't choose the least expensive option, they won't be able to buy devices for their high schools. The proposals chosen as semifinalists range from $266 to $345 per user.

"We can (afford) the low proposal, but we frankly don't have any money to go higher than that," said Crystal Priest, district technology coordinator for MSAD 4, which encompasses Guilford and five neighboring communities and has bought laptops for all of its high school students. "If the low bid is also the highest scoring, it seems like a no-brainer."

The lowest-cost and highest-scoring bid is for Apple's 32-gigabyte iPad tablets.

(Continued on page 2)

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