Repair, replacement of school computers lags

Posted: Sunday, January 28, 2001

The costs of maintaining computers in the Juneau public schools must come out of a budget that doesn't provide enough textbooks.

"The state's surplusing machines that are better than what we're using," said Chris Carte, a business teacher at Juneau-Douglas High School, pointing to some 6-year-old computers in her classroom that are used seven periods a day, five days a week.

Juneau taxpayers have spent nearly $6 million since 1994 to equip the public schools with about 1,600 computers, piles of software, and miles of computer and cable television wiring. The schools' electric systems were upgraded to handle the energy use.

Now it's time to plug in a regular supply of money to keep it running and up to date, some say.

The school district has a Cadillac with big fins and is trying to figure out how to fill the gas tank, and the Cadillac's getting old, Juneau School Board member Chuck Cohen said.

The bond debt won't be paid off until 2008, but school district administrators said they need $400,000 a year over five years to maintain and replace computers.

"There's no question that to support the infrastructure of the technology we have is problematic," said Marysia Ochej, the school district's director of administrative services. "There's not really a systematic vehicle to do that on a regular basis."

If the school board wants to spend money on technology, it will have to decide what it wants to do without, schools Superintendent Gary Bader told the board last month.

"I'm just about out of rabbits to pull out of the hat after all the years of flat funding we've had in Alaska," Bader said.

Robbie Roberts, the student representative on the school board, said some students were upset to see new computers on teachers' desks recently "when some classes don't even have enough textbooks."

Backlogs of repairs

Teachers hesitate to use computer labs because the equipment might not work, a school district technology support committee said recently. A minor repair might take a few days, and a major repair might take two weeks to two months, said Les Morse, principal at Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School.

"There's nothing more destructive to a lesson than to have machines fail," said Henry Hopkins, a school district employee who has trained teachers to use computers.

The school district would like to add technology assistants at the middle and high schools. It now pays teachers extra to help out on the side. Each elementary school already has a technology assistant. Central office technicians also fix computers, but there are months-long backlogs of repairs, teachers said.

The inter-relationship of hardware and software, and of individual computers and networks, tends to snowball the costs.

A fifth-grade teacher at Gastineau Elementary recently wanted to play a video from a Web site about Martin Luther King. Teachers had used the site before. But the site now requires a later version of the school computers' operating system.

"As these age," Gastineau technical assistant Marion Kinter said, looking at her room of 30 3-year-old computers, "we're going to run into more and more of that."

The latest software may require new or upgraded computers. When computers break, they may have to be replaced by machines that run only recent versions of software. And as more computers are added, they require more power from the networks, or everything slows down. Teachers sometimes wait five minutes for the school district's computerized attendance system to come up on the screen, Dzantik'i Heeni Principal Morse said.

"If you want to update software or be compatible with the latest search engines on the Internet, your machine has to have the size capability to be able to do that," he said.

Janna Lelchuk supervises a computer lab at JDHS that offers software-based courses for students who have failed a regular class. The lab got 25 powerful new computers two years ago, thanks to the technology bond, "but we don't have enough funding to update our software," she said.

Lelchuk wants a greater variety of software. An English program designed for ninth-graders is really on a fourth-grade level, she said. Topics included simple verb endings and contractions of "not."

"This stuff should go. It should have gone a long time ago," Lelchuk said.

The technology bond provided a computer network throughout the school district, said Richard Steele, technology teacher at Floyd Dryden Middle School.

But "it's like a forest when all the trees are the same age," Steele said. "They all 'obsolete' at the same time. How do you have a path for replacement?"

The Anchorage School District has found a path: It has leased computers since 1999, paying a yearly fee of $300 a computer in a five-year contract with Apple Computer.

Sharon Bandle, the Anchorage district's technology coordinator, said the district asked itself: "What's the cost of having a desktop computer for a student? What's it really cost? So it's rolled in (to the budget) like your utilities."

The lease covers the computer, software, virus protection, installation, Internet readiness and repairs, Bandle said. The computers will be replaced after five years and a new lease begun. Eventually the district hopes to have 10,000 leased computers, of which a quarter are replaced every year.

Dale Staley, the Juneau school district's former technology coordinator, said the local technology bonds were limited to buying capital improvements, and couldn't include leases. Equipment leases that don't lead to purchases would have to come out of the school district's operating budget, said city Finance Director Craig Duncan.

"The idea of leasing with resources aside from the bond funds was considered," Staley said. "I think the district's position was we get more value out of the equipment if we buy it outright, rather than leasing."

But now the rest of the costs - the repairs and upgrades and replacements - are coming due.

Eric Fry can be reached at

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