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SCHOOLS MAY LEASE 11,000 COMPUTERS

A $8.1-million offer from Dell would replace outdated machines and include tech support.

There are 10,474 computers in the Hernando County schools, nearly one for every two children in the 23,000-student district.

That's the good news.

But those machines are getting old, and officials say they're losing ground in the technology race, just as the state and employers are calling for up-to-date skills.

At 1 p.m. Tuesday, the School Board will consider a new approach: leasing.

By leasing computers rather than buying them outright, the district could put 11,000 brand-new machines into Hernando schools this August, said management information systems director Cindy Peters. That's a far cry from the 700 new machines per year the district currently buys.

"It will change the lives of every student," Peters said. "This will totally revitalize our district. We will finally be able to give our students the best we can give."

The price tag is considerable. Under the best offer from Dell Computer, the district would pay $8.1-million over four years.

But the Dell program also comes with technical support other vendors like Apple Computer couldn't match, Peters said. The company will send a small army of technicians this summer to install all 11,000 machines. It will also provide 20 days of on-site training, and maintain an image, or copy, of each computer's hard drive. If a computer crashes, the company has promised to ship a replacement promptly.

"No vendor responding to our request for quotes came close to the value of these services," Peters said in her board proposal. "Imaging will save countless staff hours as each computer takes several hours to set up without imaging."

At the end of four years, the district could purchase the computers or sell them to students at bargain rates: about $47 for a desktop unit and $60 for a laptop. It could then enter a new four-year lease, which would include all new machines.

Under the current technology funding system, the district spends about $700,000 per year to purchase as many new computers as it can afford, with most funds coming from state grants, Peters said. Hernando has won $2.8-million in competitive technology grants over the last six years, more than all but two of Florida's counties.

Other technology needs like software and network support add more costs, some of which would remain under the leasing program. So far this year, the district has spent about $2.5-million on technology, including the cost of new machines, said finance director Deborah Bruggink.

Whether it leases or buys, the district will have to acquire computers this summer for the new, 2,100-student Explorer K-8 school, which is slated to open off Northcliffe Boulevard in Spring Hill.

A large chunk of the funding to enter the leasing agreement would come from the district's "2-mill" discretionary funds for local capital improvements, Bruggink said.

That's the same pot of money used to repair leaky school roofs or fix parking lots, and much of it is committed to pay the debt on new school construction. "It's changing some priorities, that's for sure," Bruggink said.

But officials agree the current funding system has failed to keep up with the technology needs of a growing district. When superintendent Wayne Alexander arrived in the county last August, he said he was "appalled" at the state of computers in some of the county's 21 schools.

Technology changes so quickly that even computers in the county's newest schools are nearing their retirement age.

At Nature Coast Technical High School, 78 percent of computers are considered obsolete because they haven't been replaced since the school's 2003 opening, Peters said. About 75 percent of the district's computers are more than three years old, and machines at some schools like Brooksville Elementary are positively ancient.

"When you go out and see students running machines that are six, seven old - we have computers dating from 1998," Peters said. "Remember what you worked on in 1998? Some of our students are working on those machines in the classroom."

The state Department of Education says school districts should work toward the goal of replacing computers on a three-year cycle, and is gradually phasing in online administration of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

Many of the districts within reach of that goal are leasing computers, Peters said. At least seven counties - Broward, Escambia, Lake, Monroe, Okaloosa, Orange and St. John - are doing so.

And technology is one investment that companies notice when they consider relocating their operations to a county like Hernando, said county business development director Mike McHugh.

"Because that's your future workforce," he said. "Employers want to have a setting where their employees and their families have good quality schools to go to."

McHugh said computer leasing has helped Okaloosa County develop model vocational programs geared toward high-wage occupations.

"It allowed them to keep the best technology, and it also allowed them to maximize their resources," he added.

Tom Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1431.

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