Residents question DHS laptop program

Written by Administrator
 | Wednesday, 12 March 2014 15:49

The FY2015 Duxbury public school budget in the amount of $31.93 million passed at the annual town meeting Saturday, but only after voters questioned the school’s plan to give a laptop computer to every high school student and voiced other concerns about the budget.

Schools superintendent Dr. Ben Tantillo gave an overview of the advancements in Duxbury’s schools and highlighted their achievements, such as the high school being named one of the top ten schools in the state, the music programs receiving national recognition, and the athletics, arts and theater programs receiving acclaim at the state level. He also listed the technology upgrades that have been made for all grades and outlined improvements to the elementary school buildings.

Tantillo explained that the budget being considered was less than the schools had originally wanted. Initially, the school committee was considering requests that totaled more than $32.9 million, a $1.2 million increase over the previous year. The $31.93 million budget town meeting voters approved Saturday represented a 2.56 percent increase, or an additional $800,000, according to Tantillo.

The schools’ FY15 budget, which begins July 1, includes $150,000 for laptop computers for high school students. The plan is to lease 1,200 laptops at a cost of $1,000 per unit for a total of $1.2 million and pay for it over four years. The school department will fund half the cost of the lease using $150,000 from the FY15 operating budget and the town will provide the other half of the funding using $100,000 from unused debt levy and $50,000 from the tax levy, which will be allocated for the purposes of short term debt.

For the subsequent three years of the contract, $50,000 from the tax levy will be put into the short-term debt line item in the budget to pay for the lease.

Voters didn’t question the overall cost and how the town and schools will pay for the computers but many wondered about the specifics behind the schools’ decision.

Will Zachmann of Standish Street is a computer consultant, and he asked Tantillo why the schools decided to pay $1,000 a piece for Apple MacBook Air laptops, which he called “the Lexus or Mercedes-Benz” of laptop computers, when, in his opinion, it made more sense to spend $300 to $400 for a “perfectly good Windows” computer. Zachmann said he felt there was an “implicit notion” in Duxbury that “spending makes for a better education” and if you question the school department then you’re against education in some way.

Terry Reiber of Tremont Street also wondered whether the schools had looked at cheaper alternatives such as Chrome books, computer tablets which he said are a third of the price of an Apple laptop. He asked if Tantillo could address the issue of whether students would take better care of computers if they had to purchase them versus getting them from the schools.

Tantillo said the school department had settled on the Apple computers after looking into many options. He said the computers cost $800 each but the $1,000 price tag included a cover, an extended three-year warranty, software, and professional development. Providing students with school-issued laptops had many benefits, he said. By students all having the same machines and software, it eliminates problems a teacher would encounter trying to match up different years and versions of technology if a student used his or her own computer. The laptops have a long battery life, have less security risks, and have fewer virus and software issues than PCs, said Tantillo, who said he had previous experience in schools that had used PCs instead of Apples and had encountered many problems. Also, he said Apple computers have been in use in Duxbury schools and other school districts for many years.

“Most creative people use the Apple platform,” said Tantillo. “We have done extensive work on this issue and we really feel this is the way to go.”

One resident said she was not happy that her high school students would be given laptops because she worried about them playing too many computer games. Tantillo responded that the computers would only have school-issued software on them and that students can only access the Internet through the schools’ servers, so that will limit how students can surf the Web. Also, because the schools are the administrator of each computer, children are not allowed to add their games or programs to them. In addition, each laptop will have Lojack on it, which is a program that can lock a computer, delete its contents and recover it if it is lost or stolen.

Before voting on the school budget, residents also asked questions about bus fees and full-day kindergarten.

The schools charge a bus fee of $250 per student or $500 per family if students live closer than two miles from an elementary school or are in grades 7-12.

Schools’ business manager Sue Nauman said all of the fees amount to $200,000 per year but it costs $1.3 million to transport students annually.

Amy MacNab of Tobey Garden Street felt that bus fees should cover all costs.

“I find that completely unacceptable. If this is a fee then the fee should cover the costs of service. The rest of us shouldn’t have to pay,” she said. Nauman explained that the schools are mandated to provide transportation to students in K-6th grade so that’s why this funding was in the budget.

Mark McDevitt of Chestnut Street wondered about the status of full-day kindergarten. “Are we still breaking even on full-day kindergarten?” he asked.

Tantillo said that the schools carry a slight surplus in that account in case the state grant is eliminated.