At last night’s School Board meeting, Director of Administrative Services Matt Hillmann presented the district’s Transformational Technology Proposal, a copy of which can be found here (pdf). Anyone who knows Matt knows that he’s enthusiastic, thorough, and absolutely committed to the success of this project, which he’s been steering since the first phase of its implementation in the spring of 2012, when the Board was presented with a proposal to put iPads into the hands of teachers in the district. And from the beginning, Matt has made every effort to engage all stakeholders—teachers, parents, and students—in the process, through public meetings, focus groups, and professional development.
I’ve met with Matt twice to talk about iPads, and he has always been prompt and thorough in his responses to questions I’ve emailed to him, often responding over the weekend to emails I’ve sent on Friday afternoon.
My main questions recently have been about the cost. According to the proposal, the school district will enter into a three-year lease for the iPads, at a cost of $336,000 a year, and will budget an additional $173,000 a year for digital textbooks, apps, and other technical support. With an 8% contingency, the total annual cost for three years will be $550,000. Students will also be assessed a $25 insurance fee for each device ($20 for reduced price lunch students, $15 for free lunch students; $100 family maximum).
Here are some of my questions, and Matt’s responses.
Q. In the school budget, how do you come up with half a million dollars for this new initiative? What programs, if any, will have to be cut or reduced to make funds available for iPads?
A. We have anticipated using a combination of capital project dollars and general fund dollars at varying combinations over the life of the lease. We believe the combination will include more general fund dollars early in the lease and evolving towards more capital dollars as the lease progresses. There will be no reductions in programs or services to implement the iPad initiative.
Q. Would a situation ever arise in which the district would have to seek additional referendum revenue in order to sustain the iPad program? Under what financial circumstances would the program be cut?
A. At this point, given the generosity of the voters on our recent passage of operating and capital projects levies, we have not felt it is appropriate to even consider returning to voters for additional capital project dollars during the life of the current levies (10 years.) The initiative, like any other, will be reviewed on an annual basis and the Board could have the option at the end of any lease to discontinue the initiative. However, while we have not promised any cost savings at this point, we do believe a natural transition in spending on resources and materials from print to digital will continue to reduce the overall impact on the budget. For example, we anticipate a transition from purchasing printed curriculum (textbooks, etc.) to digital resources. We have spent, on average, approximately $150,000-$250,000 per year on textbooks and other materials. We have spent approximately $250,000-$500,000 annually on other technology projects over the last couple of years as well. We will also being transitioning some of these dollars toward the initiative. While we cannot predict an accurate cost, we do believe that a significant savings in our copying budget will become reality. Our plan is that the vast majority of the project would be paid for with capital dollars by the end of the first lease. With this plan, there will be limited impact on the general fund after the first three years of the project.
Q. What impact, if any, will the proposal have on the district’s general fund balance reserve?
A. As stated above, the majority of the project will be paid for with capital dollars by the end of the first lease, minimizing impact on the general fund. With that transition, the general fund reserve will be available to support ongoing staffing and programming needs and will not be used to fund the ongoing costs of the technology initiative. The general fund balances in 2016-17 are murky due to the inability to reliably predict state aid increases to schools.
At last night’s meeting, I asked about the impact of the proposal on the school district’s general fund, which is the fund which pays direct instructional expenses, such as teacher salaries and benefits. The other source of funding for the project, the capital projects fund, is set aside for “bricks and mortar” items, including buildings and maintenance, textbooks, and technology. My concern is with having part of the general fund locked up in a three-year lease. In 2011, the district had to make roughly $700,000 in budget cuts that reduced instructional programs across the district and raised fees. I don’t want to be in a position of having to reduce an instructional program because money is tied up in a three-year lease.
Both Matt and Dr. Richardson gave lengthy answers to my question, which I will try to find and review when the video from last night’s meeting is posted on Northfield Patch. First, they both assured me that they have been very cautious and conservative in crafting and budgeting for this proposal. I do believe that this is the case. Second, Dr. Richardson said that the major impact on the general fund in coming years will be rising salaries and benefits. Meanwhile, the portion of the iPad lease paid out of the general fund will decrease as more of the cost is shifted to the capital fund.
In any case, this is something I’ll be following closely as the process moves forward.