SOUTH PORTLAND – The South Portland City Council on Monday refused a school board request to outfit students in grades 7-12 with Apple iPads.

Although the school board voted unanimously to back the iPad as South Portland’s choice among five possible leases offered under the Maine Learning Technology Initiative, it fell to the City Council to actually appropriate $784,672 from the school department’s technology reserve fund, as requested. That motion failed due to a tie vote, 3-3.

Councilors Linda Cohen and Patti Smith voted to approve the purchase, as did Mayor Tom Blake, while councilors Gerard Jalbert, Melissa Linscott and Michael Pock voted against it. Councilor Alan Livingston was absent from the meeting.

“I think it’s a very shortsighted vote and obviously demonstrates a lack of understanding of the impact that this has on the way we educate students,” said school Superintendent Suzanne Godin on Tuesday. “We’re building a multi-million-dollar high school that’s based on a one-to-one computing platform and we’re not going to have computers for the students. I’m just beyond words.”

Godin said the school board has already asked for an agenda item on the June 10 council workshop, at which time it hopes to sway one of the councilors who voted against the proposal to move for reconsideration.

On April 29, the Maine Department of Education announced that it had chosen the Hewlett Packard ProBook 4440 running Windows 8 as the computer it would supply to all students in grades 7-8 as part of the new MLTI initiative lease. Those machines cost the state $254.86 each, plus a “per seat” fee of $30.91 for networking installation, maintenance and service.

Gov. Paul LePage reportedly chose the HP laptop – even though the 32-gigabyte iPad offered by Apple was both less expensive and more highly regarded by a committee convened to rank the five proposals made to supply computers to Maine schools for the next four years because Windows devices are thought to be more prevalent in the workplace. Still, the iPad was scored 93 out of 100 points by the study committee, which gave the HP a 79.

Explaining why he settled on the iPad as the best solution for South Portland students, even before the state awarded the MLTI contract, the school technology director, Andrew Wallace, paraphrased ice hockey great Wayne Gretzky.

“He always said he skated to where the puck was going to be, not where it was,” said Wallace.

He also said that of 400 iPads purchased by the school department since 2011, only four have been damaged, and adults broke two of those.

Just as important, said Wallace, because the iPad, at $217 each plus a $49 networking fee, is cheaper than the state’s choice, South Portland can get an iPad for all grade 7-8 students and grade 7-12 teachers at no charge. School districts that choose one of the other options, all ranked lower than the iPad by the study committee, must pay the difference between its choice and the HP machine.

Schools also can buy computers at the state price for students outside grades 7-9. South Portland had intended to buy 860 iPads for students in grades 7-12, plus another 44 for educational technicians in the district.

At a savings of $19.77 per machine, South Portland expected to save $17,674.38 by choosing the iPad tablet over the HP laptop.

Still, some councilors did not see the iPad as an appropriate device, even though the council approved purchase of iPads for sixth-graders as part of a pilot program last year, and the year before.

“My son uses a laptop in school,” said Councilor Melissa Linscott. “I’m very concerned that the things they are learning and need to accomplish with these systems will be difficult on an iPad, that the laptop is much better suited for the kind of work the students are doing it their classrooms.”

Linscott also noted that while her son in public school uses a computer in class, her daughter, enrolled in a private school, does not.

“She actually writes things out,” said Linscott. “It’s a different style of learning and teaching, but I think there can be some debate on the needs for them [computers] at all. It is possible to learn these days and get a good, quality education without having a screen in front of you.”

“For every sixth-grader through 12th-grader to have their own personal computer paid for by the taxpayers of South Portland? Isn’t that grand?” said Councilor Michael Pock. “I don’t agree with it. Half these kids can’t even write anymore.”

Pock and Linscott also referenced complaints lodged by city resident Al DiMillo, who faulted the school board for seeding the technology reserve fund with year-end surpluses which, according to school budget figures, came largely from special education funds.

“That’s illegal because the voters did not approve those funds as required,” DiMillo said, claiming that any surplus dollars must remain in the general categories for which they were approved at the annual public school budget validation vote.

Asked by Linscott for an opinion, city Finance Director Greg L’Heureux said he was “not well versed” in state law as it pertained to school budget votes.

“The board can make that decision on surplus and they did in public meetings,” said Godin. “We’ve been doing that for going on four years as a way of lessening the impact to voters of these needs, which we saw coming.”

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