Mar 112013

Friday morning, the Groton-Dunstable Regional School Committee braved an incoming nor’easter to meet and certify its $35,200,000 FY2014 budget and reached a consensus to move forward with approving a half-million dollar Spring Town Meeting warrant article to fund technology infrastructure and equipment improvements. Over the last several weeks, Interim Superintendent Tony Bent and Curriculum Director Kerry Clery have been consulting with School Committee and town officials in both Groton and Dunstable about a proposed warrant article to supply the School District with much needed updates in wireless and computer technology. The original proposal was trimmed by a third, the amount of the newly certified article. The 2014 budget includes a new position for a Technology Director to oversee and manage the district’s tech initiatives, a position that Bent and Clery say is a standard executive staff position in most districts.

The tech article comes on the heels of a technology audit done by the district last December. The report identified a number of deficiencies and inconsistencies in the district”s technology resources, including a tech support staff stretched to the limits as it works to keep aging computers and slow networks running. According to the cover sheet, the proposed warrant article, “Documents a forward-looking effort to align our technology hardware and infrastructure with the programs and personnel whose primary focus is student achievement [and] works in tandem with our district priorities and with the teaching and learning expectations necessary to remain high-achieving in the 21st century.”

Not specifically called out is the fact that computer and network technology has increased in importance in schools as it has become more pervasive in most people’s lives. The school district, however, has been using level funded budgeting for several years and spending has not kept pace with changes in the tech landscape.

This plan doesn”t even put us in the race, it only gets us to the starting line.

Curriculum Director Kerry Clery explained that the purchases in the tech proposal represent the bare minimum required to allow teachers and students equal, proper access to technology district-wide. When asked if buying equipment before hiring a Director of Technology might be jumping the gun, she replied that “This plan doesn”t even put us in the race, it only gets us to the starting line… ” because the technology article would purchase low-level basic equipment.

School Committee Chair Alison Manugian said that the Technology Director position will be posted later this month, and sees a building consensus. “My sense at this point is that there is understanding and support for our technology needs from the town government officials, communities and parents. How exactly we get from here to our ultimate endpoint needs to be determined.”

Line items in the draft article circulated last week added up to $562,000 and include laptop computers for teachers, laptop carts for students to use in class, LCD projectors, document cameras. Also included are infrastructure improvements to establish wireless network connectivity in the district middle and elementary schools. The high school was set up with wireless access last summer and fall.

What $562,000 buys for the schools

Laptop Carts of 30 (15) $228,750
LCD Projectors $64,250
Document Cameras (36) $20,880
Laptops for teachers (63) $40,950
Wireless for Middle and Elementary Schools $144,225
Ventilation for data closets $20,000

In parallel with the proposed purchases for infrastructure and equipment, the District”s Operating Budget proposal for FY2014 includes increased funding for staff support for both new and existing technology, including a Technology Director who would oversee the purchases and then to develop a comprehensive vision for technology in the District. While there has been some discussion of whether the District should be purchasing equipment before a technology director is on board, Clery asserted that the initial purchases represent such basic needs that they would not preclude a technology director”s ability to build a coherent vision. She noted that providing laptops and wireless access to teachers and students and updating the high school language Lab are things that need to happen under any circumstances.

Buying in FY14 would also help the District prepare for the new statewide testing tool, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers(PARCC), which replaces the MCAS in 2014-15. The PARC will require students to take the exam on computers. Bent was quick to point out that the new testing standards did not drive the tech funding request. MCAS tests “A fairly narrow band of student achievement, but a lot of other stuff determines a good education. We would be the same on MCAS if we had no arts or athletics but no one would say that our education is complete without them.” The same is true for computers, and he asserts that GDRSD is “woefully behind” comparable districts in its ability to use technology to teach and train students for the 21st century job market.

Groton Dunstable Education Foundation (GDEF) President Kerri Figueroa confirmed that district teachers have long been trying to update technology through foundation grant requests but that it is now at the point where the district needs to implement a broader plan for supporting education through technology. She told The Groton Line via e-mail that, “GDEF has been piloting cutting edge technology in the district for many years and we are seeing a tremendous increase in both the number and dollar amounts of grant requests for technology related items. Approximately 50% of the $8,960 grants awarded in our recent fall grant cycle were for technology and yet several requests were also denied because they related to infrastructure that GDEF felt is the district”s responsibility. In the absence of a district-wide technology leader and a comprehensive technology plan, it is becoming increasingly difficult to prioritize these funding requests and, perhaps more importantly, ensure that they will be effectively implemented with the current technology infrastructure in place throughout the district. Several years back, GDEF received over $90K in technology related grant requests in our spring cycle alone. All those requests were deferred because there did not seem to be any continuity across schools, grades or even within teaching teams. Although we see the value in funding technology for teachers and administrators who are tech-savvy and have a concrete curriculum plan for their use, GDEF must be mindful that our donors” money should be used for its intended purpose – enrichment. The District must step up and do its due diligence in providing the basics and the Foundation will be happy to enhance those basics.” Since its founding, GDEF has spent a total of $115K on technology, or 35% of all grants funded.

We have a tremendous opportunity to transform our district in the next few years.

Manugian believes the technology initiative sends an important message about the district: “I think that our current position with regard to technology is one that potential Superintendent Candidates will be interested in. Hopefully they will regard it as we do, that we have a tremendous opportunity to transform our district in the next few years. I believe that the recent Technology Audit and our upcoming posting [for Technology Director job] will indicate our commitment to move forward.”

The technology warrant article is separate from the District”s operating budget and will require voter approval at Spring Town Meeting and possibly the ballot box. School Committee member Jim Frey explained that once “The School Committee adopts an article proposal, it then must request an article be placed on the town meeting warrant. The School Committee has already reserved the right to do this in Groton via a “placeholder” warrant item but not yet in Dunstable (where there is still time to get on the warrant). Assuming the committee proceeds with a warrant article item, the article will then be presented and voted at Town Meeting. The Town Select boards and FinComms will review and take a position to support the article or not at Town Meeting. Whether or not it goes to ballot for town election depends on how the Town boards decide to recommend funding – as part of the existing levy limit or as a debt exclusion item.”

The budget approved on Friday represents an .88% budget increase, down from the 1.863% outlined in the original request. The trimmed budget includes, among other things, a $50,000 reduction in the contingency fund for special education and cuts in paraprofessional support in the middle and elementary schools. The staff reductions were made in concert with school principals and PPS director Camilla Huston. Huston confirmed that the paraprofessional staff reductions do not include removing 1:1 aides from students requiring that level of support. The District also reinstated $15,000 in athletic fees that were rescinded earlier this year but did not announce plans for exactly how those fees would be allocated among sports. At its budget workshop last week the School Committee stated its intention to seek community input before establishing a new fee structure.

Spring Town Meeting begins Monday, April 22, and will continue on Tuesday, April 23, Monday, April 29, if additional sessions are needed.