Duval Board questions Vitti’s idea to borrow to buy 50000 laptops, other electronic devices for schools – Florida Times-Union
Members of Duval County’s School Board gave a cool reception Tuesday to Superintendent Nikolai Vitti’s idea to borrow up to $52 million to buy 50,000 laptops for students and dozens of interactive displays for teachers in the district’s non-Title 1 schools.
Title 1 schools serve large numbers of low-income students. The district in recent years issued two bonds through a federal low-interest program called QZAB (Qualified Zone Academy Bonds) to equip all of its schools with high-speed wireless internet capacity.
The district also used that money to buy laptops, interactive boards that look like large TVs but with touch screens, and related technology. It put them into many of its Title 1 elementary schools, all middle schools and some high schools.
Getting laptops and other technology for the rest of the district would be fair, Vitti said.
“In this context, it’s the non-Title 1 schools that have less, when we’re talking about technology,” he said. “This is starting to transform instruction.”
At most of the district’s Title 1 elementary schools there are 1.5 students for every laptop, he said, while in non-Title 1 elementary schools there are 2.3 students for every laptop.
Because the district put a high priority on technology in middle schools, in part to stem enrollment loss, the laptop-to-student ratio is the same for Title 1 and non-Title 1 middle schools — one student for every laptop.
But in high school the disparity returns: two students for every laptop in Title 1 schools and 2.5 students for every laptop in non-Title 1 schools.
Vitti said he wants to apply for a third QZAB loan to “refresh” or replace old or damaged laptops, purchase new ones and buy technology packages and interactive boards for teachers.
The $52 million loan also would be matched by a $5 million grant from EMTEC Inc., a technology supplier, he said. The board is considering a separate proposal next month to spend $5 million on interactive display systems from EMTEC.
For middle schools Vitti wants to buy laptop lockers, which look like regular lockers but with drawers which store and charge laptops. They can electronically keep tabs on which students borrows laptops.
Several board members said they want to slow down and consider more options. Some asked about the amount of debt the district already has.
Without a third QZAB loan, the district’s annual debt service hovers between $31 million and $33 million a year, according to district projections of the next three years. But with a third QZAB loan it could grow to nearly $37 million a year over the next three years.
Vitti said the third QZAB loan would add about $4.5 million in payments per year for the next 15 years to the district’s $1.7 billion budget.
He said the district can afford it because it has one of the lowest debt levels of the biggest seven districts in Florida.
Board member Scott Shine said that, as a businessman, he’s uncomfortable with borrowing for 15 years to pay for laptops, which only have a lifetime of about five years.
“I would want debt that matches longevity; that way you don’t wind up under water,” he said. “I want computers, but the question is how do you pay for them?”
Board member Rebecca Couch noted that the district has just begun paying off its prior two QZAB bonds, which totaled $79 million.
“The more debt we take on, the more it impacts our bond rating,” she said.
Vitti noted that laptops and interactive devices have become staples in today’s classrooms. Just because they become obsolete every few years, it doesn’t mean students don’t need them.
“That’s the reality of devices,” Vitti said. “We’d have to make a decision we’re not comfortable with by not investing in devices. I’m not comfortable with that because that’s how our children learn.”
Vitti said the district probably can’t afford to buy laptops outright using its existing revenue stream, not without making large, painful cuts to programs.
He also doubted that state officials, who control about half the district’s revenues and many of its spending decisions, would send more money for laptop purchases, even though the state requires most students to take state tests online on computers.
Board Chairwoman Paula Wright noted that this is all just an idea; the board has time to consider other options. She also suggested that instead of one large technology purchase, the district could “phase it in” over time.
“It’s not something you need to lose sleep over,” she said, adding that currently students share computers when doing classwork in small groups.
That will get harder to do in the future, Vitti said. But he added that the district need not borrow the whole $52 million; it could ask for a smaller amount.
Shine asked if the board could find a long-term way to fund the district’s technology needs “in perpetuity.” Board member Cheryl Grymes suggested that the district finally discuss a referendum with local voters.
“I don’t think we have the luxury of not doing anything,” she said.
Denise Smith Amos: (904) 359-4083