Wake school bonds would provide new technology for classrooms

khui@newsobserver.comSeptember 29, 2013 

SKULBONDTECH03-NE-092613-CCS

Student Shamar Privette uses a pointy finger to write on the SMART board for a math lesson in Jade Tucker's 5th grade class at Zebulon Elementary School in Zebulon, NC on Sept. 26, 2013. Although these boards were funded from other sources, part of the upcoming school bond proposes about $64.9 million for technology upgrades for Wake County schools.

CHRIS SEWARD — cseward@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

  • Bond vote approaches

    Wake County voters go to the polls Oct. 8 to vote on an $810 million bond issue that would allow the county to borrow money to build and renovate schools and stock them with modern technology.

    The plan was proposed by the county board of education and approved by the county commissioners. It would result in an increase in county property taxes; the owner of a home assessed for taxes at $263,500 would pay about an additional $145 a year.

    Today’s story focuses on the technology upgrades the bond issue would pay for. It is part of a series that will examine the result of the county’s method of school funding. We’ll also look at proposed alternatives for paying for school construction and organized efforts for and against the bond proposal.

— You can still smell the chalk when you walk into Zebulon Elementary School.

But there are significantly fewer chalkboards now that the 30-year-old school has its 21st century replacement – interactive whiteboards linked to computers that allow students to write on wall-mounted displays. It took the Zebulon Elementary School PTA to raise money for the economically challenged school to acquire the high-tech devices, which are more common in other parts of the Wake County school system.

As voters go to the polls next week, one of the things they’ll decide on in the $810 million Wake County school construction bond issue is how schools will handle their technology needs. The bonds would fund most of a $939.9 million capital improvement program that includes $64.9 million for technology upgrades at schools.

Phil Zachary, co-chairman of the Friends of Wake County, the group promoting the bond issue, said classrooms need SMART boards – which are the most popular type of interactive whiteboards – as much as they once needed chalkboards.

“We are talking about the basics for every child regardless of where they live,” he said. “Every child needs to be given the same basic opportunities. Technology is part of the basics.”

Opponents of the bond issue have not taken a specific position on the technology funding.

But, historically, technology spending has been a sensitive issue for school planners when developing school bond issues.

In 1999, school leaders announced an aggressive plan to spend $158 million out of a $938 million capital improvement program on technology. The money would have allowed Wake to have one device for every five students.

But critics called the technology plan excessive and the $650 million bond issue that would have funded most of that program was rejected.

Funding for technology was sharply scaled back in the 2000 and 2003 bond issues. The district set aside $35.2 million for technology as part of the $970 million bond issue approved by voters in 2006.

For this bond issue, school leaders had initially considered spending $97 million on technology, including:

• Upgrading high-speed data networks and wireless capacity at schools, for $33 million.

• Installing interactive whiteboards, projectors and other equipment in 11,000 classrooms, for $29 million.

• Purchasing 50,000 laptop computers and tablets to create a ratio of one device for every three students, for $25 million.

But the technology proposal was slashed by 33 percent to increase spending on new schools and renovations. To make up for the cut, Todd Wirt, assistant superintendent for academics, said they’re only scaling back the number of student and classroom devices they’d buy.

“Our top priority is the infrastructure,” he said. “You can have a device, but it’s useless unless the infrastructure in place.”

Wake school leaders are weighing a policy that would encourage students to bring their own wireless devices to school for classroom use. One of the stumbling blocks is that many older schools don’t have the wireless capability to handle a large number of students connecting to the Internet at the same time.

During a speech Friday, Superintendent Jim Merrill said that improving the technology infrastructure at older schools “really hasn’t been addressed much the past several years.” He said some limited equipment for students would be purchased.

Wirt said they haven’t yet determined how many interactive whiteboards, laptops and tablets they’d be able to buy with the reduced funding. But he said they’d still see a “considerable’ increase in the number of devices if the bond issue passes.

In the Research Triangle area, Zachary, of the Friends of Wake County, said there’s no excuse for schools to not have technology as part of the learning environment.

“It’s not about wizardry and fun,” he said. “It’s about teaching students basic learning skills.”

With technology dollars limited, some schools have been forced to turn to their PTAs for help to get the equipment they want.

That’s what took place at Zebulon Elementary School when Principal Marion Evans asked the PTA for help buying SMART boards. Evans said her teachers told her new technology was the one thing they felt would really help student learning.

“They look at schools like I do,” Evans said of the PTA. “Education comes first.’

Traci Narron, past PTA president at Zebulon Elementary, said the group, which hasn’t taken a position on the bond issue, was glad to help. Narron, a native of Zebulon, had returned after having lived in a northern Virginia school system where there were SMART boards in all the classrooms. She said she was surprised to find Zebulon Elementary still had chalkboards.

One of the long-running concerns in eastern Wake is that the schools have high concentrations of low-income students but don’t get the school resources that advocates say are needed.

Narron said it took two years to raise $19,000 to acquire SMART boards for the third-, fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms.

“The families and the community really came together to make this happen,” she said. “I couldn’t be more proud of our school.”

Evans used federal funding that the school receives – because it has a high percentage of students receiving subsidized lunches – to acquire SMART boards for the kindergarten, first- and second-grade classrooms.

The SMART boards were installed over the summer, and Evans said they’ve become vital tools for teachers who can do things such as link them to online video tools. Teachers say the SMART boards have made the students more excited about learning.

Zachary praised PTAs for helping their schools acquire new technology. But since some PTAs can’t provide as much money as others, he said the bond issue is needed to treat schools fairly.

“I’d like the PTAs to continue to provide the above and beyond and not have to meet the basic needs” he said. “I consider technology – wireless and SMART boards – to be absolutely basic needs.”

Hui: 919-829-4534

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