On Tuesday 6/11/19, a request went before the City Council to authorize $200,000 of Free Cash to purchase replacement units for approximately 1,000 computer/chromebooks across the district. There are a few things to unpack about this process, so stick with me.
I avidly support the need to drastically infuse technology to our students. For me, it is NOT about taking MCAS that drives my motivation. This often floats to the top because it’s a tangible event. For me, the reason our students need access to this kind of technology is because it IS the answer for their future and it’s our job to make sure they are prepared. Testing is a much lower priority driver for me.
First, what is free cash? Essentially, it’s unrestricted funds that are available for appropriation as a result of a surplus from our city’s prior fiscal years. Because the city and schools receive funding from many sources both state and federal, the city budget is voted on and approved by the end of the fiscal year without totally knowing what all of those sources of revenue will be exactly. Lots of guesstimating happens in any budget really, and the city/schools are no exception. Free cash isn’t a given, because there are many years where the end result picture of all the true numbers isn’t nearly as favorable. When it happens though, you can be sure that there are a lot of different ways you can spend it across a city of our size. In this case, the schools were requesting a chunk of surplus money to REPLACE aging technology.
Second, the School Committee cannot authorize the spending of free cash. The Mayor and City Council do that. Obviously, the Mayor chairs the School Committee and is positioned to know all the competing priorities across the city. Any use of free cash for school purposes has to be requested by the Mayor and approved by the City Council.
Third, the real request. REPLACING AGING TECHNOLOGY. $200,000 worth. This request really doesn’t get us to any sort of improvement of our ratio of technology to students. I have counts of chromebooks for the Roberts, McGlynn, and Brooks from a recent presentation to the School Committee and when compared to student counts, the student to chromebook ratio ranges from 5:1 to 6:1 in these schools. The story is similar at the middle schools. It isn’t nearly enough. But it is also critically necessary to understand that, like buildings, we need to MAINTAIN our technology. The council noted that the last infusion of technology was in 2012 and there was surprise that it had been so long. There was also recognition that the PTOs are filling this gap, in part, in some schools. PTOs are truthfully filling all kinds of gaps across our district. Asst. Superintendent Kirsteen Patterson noted that more than 1000 units are at the end of life. She also noted that there is a lump sum in the budget in addition to this request. She didn’t disclose the amount.
Ultimately, there was a question about how this related to the upcoming School Budget and Councilor Lungo-Koehn tabled the request with a Section 22, meaning that all debate ceases immediately, until next week when the budget discussion with the Schools occurred.
Here’s my take. It is not clear how big the NET ADDITION of equipment would be if you paired this Free Cash request with the budgeted amount and took the obsolete equipment out of service (Free Cash Devices + Budgeted Devices - Obsolete Devices this year and beyond). I certainly know we are not approaching anywhere near a 1 to 1 ratio. We are very far from that. I haven’t heard a stated goal regarding what our device ratio should be to support our curriculum and students, so I use 1:1 based on comparison to other cities and towns, just as an illustration. Quick math at the elementary schools alone using a 5.5:1 ratio says that $300,000 is need to infuse new devices to the elementary schools alone to get to 1:1 ratios. This dollar figure is only talking about new equipment. Add to that the needs of the middle schools and the high school, we are well outside any amount we’ll see in this budget. (You know that our school funding this year is hugely problematic based on changes at the state level. Thank you if you signed our petition on that topic.)
There appears to be willingness across some/many members of the council to articulate the need for MORE during the upcoming budget meetings. I couldn’t agree more. So as a community we have 2 problems to solve. One is to get to a place where we have infused enough new equipment to service our needs. The second is to maintain our inventory annually. Neither is easy.
So here is your call to action: The City Council will be reviewing the school department budget on Thursday 6/20/19 in Room 207 at City Hall at 5:45. You should be there! If you come, and feel compelled to do so, I’m sure the council will welcome your comments. Be sure to express your support for the request sent to the council on this item if you can’t be there too.