Even in a tough budget year, it's hard to resist the lure of innovative technology.
That's what Hillsborough County School Board members are saying as questions roll in about their decision to put an Apple iPad in the hands of every student and teacher at two Tampa middle schools next year.
It will cost about $900,000 in federal grant money for about 900 devices and training.
"I know there's been an uproar from the community over this," said member Stacy White, who joined the unanimous vote at Tuesday's School Board meeting. "And I know I ran as a fiscal conservative and promised to be a budget hawk. I really agonized over this one."
But he said the potential benefits for the pilot program at Franklin and Ferrell middle schools - both slated to open next fall as single-gender magnet academies - could outweigh the costs for the district.
"Because in today's world you have to be familiar with technology," White said. "I think it's important for students to learn how to properly use technology from a trained teacher."
Jose Colindres, chief operating officer of a social service agency in Westchase, told the board Tuesday he supported that goal. But he was taken aback by the lack of detail in the agenda item, which didn't indicate just how much "above $50,000" the plan would actually cost.
"As a board, I ask you to be very responsive and open," he said. "Taking back your authority, not delegating it out, being accountable to the people."
At Tuesday's meeting, middle school curriculum director Josie Sanders said the device's many applications - from astronomy to history movies - will energize students. For now, they won't replace textbooks.
"It will connect them to real-life situations, not just pages in a book," she said.
The devices normally retail for between $350 and $600, but the district's per-unit price of $1,004 includes staff training and other services. They will be purchased using federal Title 1 and Magnet Schools Assistance Program grants.
District officials did not respond Wednesday to requests for more detail about the project.
Board members said they asked the staff hard questions about the iPads in private meetings, and still had some a day after their vote.
"How are you going to integrate them into the curriculum?" wondered chairwoman Doretha Edgecomb. "What kind of training are you going to use, and how will this impact learning? Because we've got a prescribed curriculum in middle school."
But she voiced support for the effort, saying it would make the new magnet programs "attractive and innovative, and not like every other school in the district."
Franklin has struggled under the state's accountability system in recent years, earning multiple C grades but failing to post adequate improvements among some student groups. Ferrell has also earned C grades, and more than 80 percent of students in each school qualify for a free or reduced-fee lunch.
By converting into single-gender academies, both schools get a fresh start under the state system. And they'll recruit students from across the district, rather than just from their central Tampa neighborhoods.
"Magnets are expensive, and the only way they stay successful is if they're unique," said board member Jack Lamb.
He said district staffers see the iPads as a factor that will help draw students to the schools.
The district rushed the purchase onto the agenda, he said, to take advantage of upcoming staff training opportunities.
Experts say training will be essential if the district hopes to make the devices an integral part of the curriculum, rather than a flashy gimmick.
"The district should be thinking about, 'How are we doing it that's authentic and meaningful, and how is it leading toward students achieving and meeting the learning objectives?'" said Christopher Sessums, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Florida.
Kara Dawson, an associate professor of educational technology, said Hillsborough needs to explain its goals clearly to the public. "If I were a parent choosing a school, I would say, 'This is awesome. But what are you going to do with them?'"
Done properly, she said, it's not such a rash move to put expensive technology directly in students' hands.
"I do think that one-to-one technical devices of some kind are definitely on the horizon for K-12 schools, whether it be iPads or netbooks or laptops," Dawson said.
Tom Marshall can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3400.