New computers are coming to Kodiak schools after the Kodiak Island Borough school board approved spending $509,000 on new computers and training for teachers to use them.
“This is a lot of money, and we don’t look at it lightly,” said school board president Melissa Borton.
The money for the purchase is coming from an annual refund provided by the school district’s insurance program. Because the district funds its own health insurance program, years that see fewer claims lead to a big surplus the following year. The surplus, which has ranged from $85,000 to $1.3 million over the past five years, is typically used for one-time purchases. Some money is saved, but the majority is refunded to teachers who paid premiums or spent on instructional equipment.
Though the money was available, spending it on computers wasn’t an easy choice for the school board, which held two special work sessions on the topic. The proposal accepted by the school district involves buying 399 Macbook Pros, 6 iMacs, 5 MacMinis and 50 iPads. All but 150 of the Macbooks will replace existing, outdated computers.
“I believe in being good stewards of the money the public entrusts to us,” said school board treasurer Aaron Griffin,” but at the same time, I think that it’s also important that we place technology in the hands of our students.”
School board members appeared to be swayed by presentations from school district staff and from stories like the one told by Nathalie Meus, the student representative to the school board.
Meus described a recent group project that involved watching a 10-minute video: “In my group alone, there were six girls crowded around one laptop,” she said. “We have this tiny screen on this tiny laptop, and we couldn’t see it all.”
Meus said the size of the class meant the teacher was spread thin answering questions couldn’t put each group’s video onto a larger screen. “We were all wondering why can’t all have our own laptops,” she said. “Having a shortage of these laptops does not help our education at all.”
Not everyone was happy about the school board’s vote.
Colleen Nevin spoke to the board during public comments and asked whether the $500,000 might be spent elsewhere, whether on pay increases for teachers or for a gym Kodiak Middle School’s sixth grade could use. “Perhaps we need to make do with the computers we have,” she said. “I’m not against technology, but I’m just saying.”
Superintendent Stuart McDonald said the computers being replaced are up to six years old, and while Macs were chosen for their reliability, even they eventually wear out. Adding additional computers also brings the school district closer to its ultimate goal of providing a computer for every student, a goal McDonald admitted is still some distance away.
To address concerns about the higher perceived cost of Apple computers compared with their Windows counterparts, McDonald explained that the school district shopped around and found that Apple laptops came with many features that the district would have to pay extra for with Windows, particularly accessibility options for disabled students.
In addition, McDonald said the school district’s last experience with Dell computers was not a good one, as the district found itself spending more for replacement and repairs than the cost difference to buy Apples. “In order to get an equally performing Dell computer ... they were within $20 difference in price and they required support that would be needed in terms of ongoing software and ... virus protection,” McDonald said.
In other business, the board unanimously approved a series of policy changes suggested by district staff and the state association of school boards. The policy changes cover 17 topics as varied as a formalized football concussion policy and a ban on electronic cigarettes. The policy changes drew little comment, but Kodiak Island Educational Support Association vice president Diane Cooney and school district support staff member Linda McCool asked whether the policy would prevent teachers from wearing campaign buttons or showing collective support by wearing the same-colored T-shirt.
McDonald replied that he didn’t think so. “It’s just the name of an organization,” he said. “It’s not campaigning.”
Griffin, who worked on the committee that suggested the policy changes, said the idea is to prevent campaigning to a captive audience in the classroom. “It doesn’t prohibit you from chatting about it in the break room ... but when you are in front of students actively engaged in the work of the day, we don’t want partisan political opinions lumped upon our students,” he said.
The school board also:
• recognized Kodiak High School Teacher Craig Baker, East Elementary School teacher Theresa Baker; and educational technologist Laurene Madsen for their retirement;
• approved five Future Farmers of America students to travel to Indianapolis, Ind. for the national FFA conference;
• accepted a $10,435 grant for fresh fruits and vegetables for student meals;
• permitted the district to apply for a $14,000 grant to benefit nontraditional students pursuing different activities, such as a female student interested in welding;
• approved a memorandum of agreement with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation for a student-run paralytic shellfish poisoning monitoring program;
• approved a joint-use agreement with Kodiak College for college facilities;
• approved use agreements for school buildings in Old Harbor, Karluk, Ouzinkie and Larsen Bay;
• approved a joint-use agreement for Baranof Park with the city of Kodiak and the Kodiak Island Borough;
• approved a contract with Laura Smelser to work as a teacher at Kodiak High School for 64 days;
• and accepted a federal education jobs grant worth $9,617.
The Kodiak Island Borough school board next meets Oct. 8 for a regular work session. Its next regular meeting is Oct. 22.