Next year's Hamilton County Schools budget includes no new money for tech

Next year's Hamilton County Schools budget includes no new money for tech

April 13th, 2013 by Kevin Hardy in Local Regional News

Hamilton County Department of Education headquarters

Photo by John Rawlston/Times Free Press.

POLL: Should schools put more money into technology?

Despite months of talk about major, systemwide technology upgrades, Hamilton County Schools officials aren't putting up any of their own cash for the effort next year.

Next year's proposed budget calls for no new local money to buy computers, iPads or other devices. The district is studying Superintendent Rick Smith's ambitious plan to give all students tablets, both to enhance the classroom experience and to get schools up to speed for online tests by 2014.

Smith estimates it would cost nearly $20 million to buy 42,000 iPads and provide the proper infrastructure improvements like broadband upgrades. But he's betting on wide support from parent and community groups and planning to allow students to bring devices from home. That will help offset the cost, though it's unlikely that all schools will garner such support.

Officials expect to receive about $1.3 million from Gov. Bill Haslam's proposed $51 million fund for statewide technology upgrades. With it, they'll invest in infrastructure improvements to get schools ready to handle more devices.

School board members are meeting with tablet companies about how their products can be used in the classroom. This month, a company showed off its Web-based tablet. Apple personnel gave a presentation to board members on Friday, and Microsoft is expected to give a similar demonstration next week.

Though they aren't putting any money into equipment purchases, system officials want to decide parameters of new devices so they can guide schools that do come up with the financial backing.

"It's both so we can give schools direction and when we do have the infrastructure in place we won't be caught off guard and have to start from zero," said Jonathan Welch, chairman of the school board's technology committee.

While officials would have liked to set aside cash for technology purchases, other increasing costs, like health insurance, have left the budget strapped.

Board members also are looking to boost the capital maintenance budget. The annual capital budget of $3 million barely makes a dent in the overall needs of the system's fleet of aging buildings, which are projected to top $200 million.

"We keep getting hammered on the condition of our buildings, yet we want to spend millions of dollars on technology. Where are you going to put it?" said school board Chairman Mike Evatt.

The school system currently puts aside about $2.5 million a year for information technology department salaries, equipment purchases and software licenses. Grants are often spent on computers and other equipment for schools.

The department's budget isn't expected to change much next year. Evatt said he would like to see a capital technology budget of at least $2 million in future budgets. But even that amount won't come close to covering the costs of widespread tech upgrades at once.

"Anything we do is going to have to be phased in over a period of time," he said. "This is the 21st century. We need to step up to the plate."

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at khardy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249.