Ann Arbor Public Schools Technology Bond Forum (April 16, 2012): At a sparsely attended forum on Monday evening, Ann Arbor Public Schools (AAPS) district administrators reviewed their reasoning behind asking district voters to fund a $45.8 million technology bond, and fielded questions from the community members who attended. On May 8, voters will be asked to approve a 0.5 mill tax to support the bond.
The forum was held at Pioneer High School.
District superintendent Patricia Green noted that AAPS administration has been giving its presentation to various school and community groups, and expressed cautious optimism that voters would support the bond, based on the initial response from these groups.
At Monday’s forum, community members questioned the scope and length of the proposed bond issue. They also asked about contingency plans if the millage fails, the district’s loyalty to Apple as a technology vendor, what will happen to the district’s computers and other technology products as they become outdated, and exactly how technology is used in teaching and learning.
After moving the ballot question from the February election to May – to avoid the confusion of holding the tech bond vote in conjunction with a closed Republican primary – the district is funding a special election on Tuesday, May 8 to decide the issue.
Why AAPS Says the Technology Bond is Needed
At the forum, Green described passage of the bond as critical to allowing AAPS to support what she called “21st century learning,” and deliver a “world class curriculum.” She then highlighted aspects of the district’s strategic plan that are dependent on updated technology.
Green began by noting that the AAPS strategic plan emphasizes personalized learning, but that the district’s aging technology infrastructure is starting to shortchange students. Passage of the tech bond, she explained, would streamline the implementation of the Northwest Evaluation Association’s Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test, which was recently rolled out in the district. Green said the MAP is being used to give teachers instant feedback on their students’ skill sets three times per year so that teachers can group students more flexibly to maximize learning success. She acknowledged that there were problems with the MAP implementation throughout the district this year – due to a lack of robust infrastructure, aging computers, and limited computer lab availability, she said.
Next, Green pointed out that many students could benefit from additional online or distance learning opportunities. Those benefiting from those opportunities include struggling students – who want to make use of software for credit recovery or remedial skill-building, such as Read 180 and e2020 – as well as students who want to take a greater number of classes than can be scheduled in a standard school day. “We could have young people who want to take vocal music and orchestra take additional classes online,” Green suggested. “[Online learning] is not just for strugglers, but those who want to move forward as well.”
She noted the strategic plan’s goal of increasing effective staff training. She said enhanced technology could make a “phenomenal” difference in advancing professional development opportunities, as well as allowing for use of multimedia in classroom learning. Finally, Green pointed out that the district’s website and communication strategies with parents are being updated and depend on a robust tech infrastructure.
In her closing remarks, Green credited educator Ian Jukes, one of the editors of the book “Teaching the Digital Generation,” with the idea that schools need to prepare students for the world of tomorrow. She said that she is concerned about the “digital divide,” and noted that some AAPS students rely entirely on their schools for computer access. The 10-year bond that voters are being asked to approve, Green said, will allow AAPS to refresh and renew technology such that students remain on the cutting edge of technology.
What the Tech Bond Would Buy and How
AAPS deputy superintendent of operations Robert Allen reviewed what the $45,855,000 bond would be used to purchase over the course of 10 years. He also reviewed how the bond would be funded by a new millage paid by property owners, that would average 0.5 mills annually over the life of the bonds. One mill is equal to $1 for every $1,000 of a property’s taxable value. The board’s decision to float the tech bond millage was made at its Aug. 10, 2011 meeting. At that time, the board intended to place the measure on the February 2012 ballot. Later, at its Nov. 16, 2011 meeting, the board decided instead to place the measure on the May 8 ballot.
The AAPS website also provides a list of FAQs that summarizes the information presented at the forum, such as the major costs and features of each of the three series of bonds that will be issued if the millage is approved.
In broad strokes, the timing and amounts of the bond series are as follows: Series 1 beginning in 2012 ($27,275,000); Series 2 beginning in 2015 ($10,570,000); Series 3 beginning in 2018 ($8,010,000). To illustrate the range of items the tech bond will fund, the money in just the first bond series would be spent as follows [in millions of dollars]:
7.85 student laptops, desktops & additional handheld devices 2.126 teacher & administrative computers 1.966 district switch replacement & 10 gig backbone 0.5 district server replacement 0.15 Career and Technology Education (CTE) 0.175 student intervention and support services (SISS) 0.5 admin software (replacing 1998 DOS-based accounting and HR software) 3.886 classroom technologies soundfields, printers, mounted projectors, 0.3 mediacast (distribution of video districtwide) 3.423 wireless redesign 3.47 server rooms clean 0.85 10-gig backbone 0.85 contingency and bond cost 1.68 project management ------- 27.726
At the forum, Allen said that the district’s technology committee has identified improvements that will expand the district’s infrastructure, and refresh roughly 8,000 units of equipment in three-year cycles (currently laptops and desktops, but possibly other technology in the future) at the cost of approximately $1,000 per unit. He noted the district’s partnerships with local businesses – such as Google as well as smaller companies. He also stressed that the bond would allow for flexibility in the specific equipment purchased, but would not be able to be used to cover any operating expenses.
Allen said the average age of computers being used in the district is six years and argued, “Six years should not be acceptable for our kids… Industry average is two to three years.”
The tech bond millage up for a vote on May 8 would cost voters $26 per year per $100,000 in property value. For most residents, Allen said, that additional annual cost to taxpayers will be less than one tank of gas for their vehicle.
Forum Q & A
The few community members who attended the forum were primarily district parents who expressed serious concerns about the tech bond in its current form. They questioned the scope and length of the proposed bond issue. They also asked about contingency plans if the millage fails, the district’s loyalty to Apple as a technology vendor, and what will happen to technology products owned by the district as they become outdated.
Forum Q & A: Scope and Length of the Proposed Bond
One parent questioned the length of the bond, which will total 13 years over the three series of bonds. He suggested that instead of attempting to fund a set of bonds that would refresh primary equipment three times (every three years) over ten years, the district should only be requesting funding for one refresh at a time. This parent pointed out that the current interest rates on 3-year bonds were much lower, and that using shorter-term bonds would significantly save on capitalization costs.
A second parent suggested that the district had not “done its homework” on the costs outlined in the bond proposal and said it was too far-reaching.
Allen responded that AAPS was trying to prevent the need to go back to the voters in three more years. He acknowledged the first parent’s suggestion on how to structure the bond as a valid option, and thanked him for his opinion. But Allen said the district tech committee simply decided to go a different way. Allen also invited the parents present to participate in the tech committee in the future.
Forum Q & A: Bandwidth
A few parents responded to the district’s description of the network as so overloaded that it needed to close off wireless access to the public during the school day. Those parents argued that AAPS does not have the responsibility to provide Internet access to parents’, teachers’, and students’ cell phones in the building. There was some concern that district resources are being used to support the use of Facebook and YouTube during the school day. But AAPS deputy superintendent of human resources and general counsel Dave Comsa clarified that Facebook and YouTube are blocked by the district’s filter. Parents noted that kids are often able to circumvent the filter.
Forum Q & A: Unit Costs and Vendors
One parent commented that $1,000 per unit seems like a high replacement cost, and asked if AAPS had considered leasing technology equipment. Allen answered that bond funds cannot be used to lease equipment, but only to purchase it. He said that the $1,000 replacement cost per unit included warranties, and noted that AAPS is a “Mac district.”
Another parent argued that using Apple as an exclusive technology vendor was “extravagant” and asserted that excellent laptops could be purchased for only $500-$600 each.
A third parent questioned whether a $500-$600 laptop from a non-Apple vendor would hold up under typical classroom use, and noted that Apple is the leading company in education throughout the country.
Allen said the tech committee had made the decision to be an Apple district, but that different vendors could be chosen in the future. He noted that the $1,000 included warranties and maintenance. Multiple parents commented on the high quality of Apple warranty service, and the parent who had expressed concern about the cost of Apple products allowed that the $1,000 unit price was “far more acceptable” if it included warranties.
Forum Q & A: Contingency Plans
Parents asked what will happen if the bond does not pass. One asked, “Can you still effectively teach our children without this bond?” Allen responded that if the bond fails, the plan for how to educate AAPS student will have to change. He noted that the impact to the district’s operating budget would be at least $4 million, and that the district is already preparing to reduce its budget by roughly $16 million.
Board of education trustee Glenn Nelson added that the board will set the final budget in June after thinking through it very carefully. Executive director of Michigan Parents for Schools and local parent Steve Norton also added that there is yet another bill being fast-tracked in the Michigan legislature that would eliminate the industrial personal property tax – which could have an impact on the district’s ability to pay off obligations such as the tech bond. Comsa said he would look into that legislation, but Allen said from his perspective, bond issuance was still a “very attractive option” for financing. Allen did note that if taxes are eliminated and not replaced, that would have a negative impact on per-pupil funding from the state.
Forum Q & A: Old Equipment
A parent asked what will happen to old technology equipment in the district as it gets refreshed. Allen explained that state guidelines offer direction on that. He said AAPS plans to form a bank of old equipment that could be lent to families who need it to bridge the “digital divide.”
Forum Q & A: Technology Use in Teaching and Learning
Parents expressed concern about technology being misused or stolen, particularly mobile devices. They also questioned the wisdom of replacing books and “quiet learning” with constant technological inputs. One parent quoted a variety of psychology reports, and argued that excessive use of media can negatively impact academic success.
Allen responded that technology is incorporated into the learning process, and that it can motivate students. Norton added that with the unprecedented budget cuts to education currently facing districts throughout the state, many districts are using technology to do what they can no longer do with people. He named software such as Read 180, MY Access!, and e2020 as ways to individualize instruction for kids – without having to pay for one-on-one or one-on-two tutoring. “Is using technology like this perfect?” Norton asked. “No,” he said. “Is it better than nothing? Yes.”
Parents asked if the bond could cover the purchase of such software as mentioned by Norton, and Allen said it could not. He noted that some software could come pre-packaged on machines the district purchased, but that otherwise, the only software that could be purchase with bond funds was that which was related to administrative functions, not educational ones.
Green thanked everyone for attending and for sharing their opinions.
Next regular meeting of the AAPS school board: Wednesday, April 18, 2012 at Clague Middle School, 2616 Nixon Road, 5:30 pm.
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