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Pinellas schools seek to equalize computer access while cutting costs

First the printers. Now the computers.

Under a plan to reduce costs and increase technological equity among schools, Pinellas County school superintendent John Stewart plans to play Robin Hood with student computers — taking from campuses that have too many and giving to those that have too few.

The end goal: Cutting $5 million in expenses and making sure every school has a student-to-computer ratio of 3-to-1.

"While it's true that some schools will lose computers," Stewart said last week, "no school will slip below the recommended 3-to-1 ratio. … The expectation is that school staff will understand that the point is to serve all students, not just the students at that particular school."

On the heels of recent restrictions involving classroom printers, the announcement left teachers flush with questions.

Who decides which computers stay and which ones go? What about state requirements for more virtual courses and computer-based testing? Will computers donated to a particular school or paid for by grants be moved to other schools?

"Frustration levels could not be higher," teachers union president Kim Black said in an email to School Board members and Stewart after her own email and voice mail accounts were filled with concerns from employees.

According to district figures, Pinellas has more than 93,000 computers throughout the 101,000-student district, including those used by students, teachers and administrators. About 70,000 of them are 4 years old or younger, thanks largely to a program called "Refresh."

Former superintendent Clayton Wilcox started the initiative six years ago to rid the schools of outdated technology and costly repairs, said Norm Kelton, assistant superintendent of management information systems. At a cost of about $17 million this year alone, the district has been leasing 50,000 computers from Apple and Dell, relying on their tech help when the machines fail, then getting replacement computers at the end of the four years.

Now, the district is putting the brakes on those contracts, retooling specifications for leased computers to less expensive models and seeking new corporate bids. It also intends to buy 8,060 of the leased machines that have reached the end of their lease rather than pay for the machines to be replaced. Kelton said that decision alone should save the district $5 million in 2012-13.

But what about the schools that stand to lose or gain computers?

According to district figures, many schools serving students with special needs have more computers than students.

At Calvin Hunsinger School in Clearwater, for students at all grades who are diagnosed with severe emotional behavioral disorders, the district counted 223 computers for 120 pupils.

Principal Stephanie Bessette said she decided to stockpile technology last year because the state was requiring more and more computer-based testing, not to mention the new law that all high schoolers need at least one online class to graduate.

"I did that as a plan for the future," she said. "And the majority of our kids don't have access to computers at home."

And though Bessette said she was surprised to hear the district counted almost two computers per pupil at her school, she said she's willing to let some go.

"Whatever happens, we're going to work around it," she said. "We're team players."

Bonnie Cangelosi, principal at Shore Acres Elementary in St. Petersburg, said the reapportionment is understandable.

Shore Acres has been rezoned and is expected to drop from 840 students to about 700 in 2012-13. Right now, the district says, Shore Acres has 904 computers.

It only makes sense, Cangelosi said, that computers would follow the children.

Among the schools on the low end, according to district numbers: Palm Harbor Middle has 667 computers for more than 1,400 students, Pasadena Fundamental Elementary has just 198 computers for about 460 kids and McMullen-Booth Elementary has 198 computers in a school of more than 800.

Deputy superintendent Jim Madden said the inequities that have cropped up between schools stem largely from changes in student enrollment. Pinellas public schools have lost about 12,000 students since 2003, not to mention the shifts that have happened from rezoning.

Madden said the task now — before taking from some schools and giving to others — is determining how many computers at each school are used for purely student purposes, and how many are needed.

Stewart also has been trying to answer teacher concerns through video addresses. He reassured School Board members last week that special consideration will be given to schools where, for example, the PTA raised money to bulk up technology.

Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (727) 893-8707 or rcatalanello@tampabay.com.

Pinellas schools seek to equalize computer access while cutting costs 05/29/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 29, 2012 10:48pm]
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