April 30, 2013

Maine laptop choice leaves schools relieved, confused

Officials are pleased to have the flexibility to pick their provider, but there's uncertainty on cost.

By Colin Woodard cwoodard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

School officials across Maine reacted with relief and confusion Monday to Gov. Paul LePage's decision to make Hewlett-Packard the preferred supplier of computers for the state's middle school laptop program.

The decision, which allows school districts to choose their own laptop or tablet providers, ends Apple's decade-long run of supplying laptops to all of Maine's seventh- and eighth-graders. But it has created some uncertainty for local school officials, who are scrambling to determine what technology they can afford to use next fall.

After weeks of delay, the governor selected a package based on the HP ProBook 4440 -- a Microsoft Windows-based laptop -- from a field of five finalists, even though it was more expensive and received a lower score from contract evaluators than Apple's iPad 32-gigabyte tablet proposal. Students currently use Apple MacBooks.

In a news release issued Saturday morning, LePage erroneously said this was "the lowest-priced proposal," while emphasizing that Windows is "commonly used in the workplace in Maine" and that it is "important that our students are using technology that they will see and use in the workplace."

As part of the program, the state provides learning devices free of charge to all seventh- and eighth-grade public school students and their teachers. Many of Maine's school districts have chosen to lease additional devices for high school students at the reduced rates negotiated by the state.

Although he awarded the bid to the HP laptop, LePage also said that schools can choose from any of the five finalists if they wish. The state would pay for seventh- and eighth-graders' devices up to the negotiated price of the ProBook -- $285.77 per year, including networking and support services -- and the school districts would pay the rest.

"The governor wasn't comfortable moving forward with tablets knowing what he knew about Maine business and what they use," said LePage's spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett. "But we are allowing the flexibility for schools to make that choice on their own. If they are committed to Apple and they don't want to make that change, they certainly have that option."

On Monday, school districts and administration officials were both scurrying to understand what the decision meant. It was not clear whether the vendors of the other four devices -- Apple's iPad and MacBook Air laptop, HP's ElitePad tablet, and CTL's 2go Convertible Classmate NL4 tablet -- will agree to offer them at the same discounted rates they had offered on the assumption they would be, in effect, the state's sole contractor.

Earlier in the day, the governor's office said the other four devices would be priced at a less advantageous rate, described under the request for proposals as "tier 2." This would represent a considerable cost difference. In the case of the iPad proposal, annual per-user costs would jump from $266 to $410.

However, by midafternoon the administration had shifted its position, asserting that it expects all devices to be available at the most favorable "tier 1" pricing.

The potential cost differences to school districts are enormous. A school district wishing to use the Apple iPad for 200 middle school students and 400 high school students would need to come up with $106,400 annually under tier 1 pricing but nearly $189,000 under tier 2 rates.

Administration officials appear to be playing hardball in their negotiations for the contract, which is likely worth in excess of $100 million. Department of Education spokesman David Connerty-Marin said the final prices would be determined in negotiations over the next few days, but that the state would not accept prices higher than tier 1.

"We can't force them to sign at this rate, but I would be surprised if they walked away from the market," he said. "Our job as we negotiate the final contract is to get the best possible deal we can, and for that matter we could negotiate something lower than the award prices for some of these, or get other improvements."

The stance may be a successful one. Several school district officials said Apple employees had told them they intended to offer tier 1 pricing for both their iPad and MacBook proposals. Apple's education support unit in New Gloucester referred inquiries to the company's corporate communications office in Cupertino, Calif., which did not return calls on the issue.

School officials reached by the Press Herald were cautiously optimistic they would receive the lower pricing and were therefore upbeat about the governor's decision, which followed weeks of delays that have made budget and program planning difficult.

"The state has given the opportunity for everybody to pick what was best for them," said Jef Hamlin, information technology director for RSU 34, which serves Old Town and two other communities, a district committed to laptops as opposed to tablets. "We don't have a marked preference for one operating system or the other."

"It makes it very flexible for us as schools to decide what fits best for our students and staff for our systems," said Crystal Priest, district technology coordinator for SAD 4, which serves Guilford and surrounding towns. "I'm very excited about the idea of choice, but at the same time I am concerned that going forward this is going to fracture equity and professional development issues from school to school, as kids won't have access to the same software, equipment and platforms."

Kerry Gallivan, technology director for Topsham-based SAD 75, said his district wanted to stick with an Apple platform but was waiting for more details before it went ahead with a decision. "A lot is up in the air right now," he said. "There are more questions than answers."

Chris Toy, a Bath-based educational consultant, said the end of the all-Apple statewide system will present new challenges, but none that can't be overcome. With multiple platforms, the state may encounter situations where vendors blame one another for a given problem, delaying action, and some teachers will need to learn to work on multiple systems.

"Maine has certainly shown that if you present us with something complex, we figure it out," Toy said. "In the end, it's not about the machine, it's about whether the new vendors will also have experienced, trained educators who will work with teachers, administrators and tech people to help integrate the technology into teaching and learning."

John Newlin, executive director of the Lewiston-based Maine International Center for Digital Learning, agreed. "I don't think we know yet how it's all going to play out," he said. "We're in a bit of a wait-and-see situation."

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

cwoodard@pressherald.com 

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