May 29, 2013

LePage looked at ending school laptop program

He doubted its value to schools but was persuaded to let it continue, the Press Herald learns from emails as districts deal with related headaches.

By Colin Woodard cwoodard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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

click image to enlarge

Sixth-grade teacher Lisa Hatch works with Emmanuel Iglesias Tuesday, May 27, 2013, on a laptop during class at King Middle School. The class uses laptops that are seven or eight years old.

Derek Davis / Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Sixth-graders work on laptop computers Tuesday, May 27, 2013, during class at King Middle School. Gov. Paul LePage considered shutting down Maine's school laptop program last fall, newly revealed e-mails show.

Derek Davis / Staff Photographer

Additional Photos Below

Related Documents

PDF: Bowen's 2011 e-mail about Windows-based laptops
PDF: Bowen's pitch to LePage: Keep laptops
PDF: Bowen responds to LePage's comments

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.


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.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

Sixth-grader Cole McGhie works on a laptop computer, Tuesday, May 27, 2013, during class at King Middle School. Gov. Paul LePage considered shutting down Maine's school laptop program last fall, new e-mails show.

Derek Davis / Staff Photographer


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