Arizona's Long, Good Buy

School districts buying computers isn’t novel -- a couple of CPUs here, a monitor there -- but 36,000 computer systems?

When the state of Arizona was confronted with the issue of equitable funding for schools, Gov. Jane Dee Hull, herself a former teacher, marshaled ground-breaking legislation as a solution to a lengthy legal battle. The Students FIRST initiative passed the Arizona legislature in 1998 and created the School Facilities Board, replacing its predecessor, the Capital Facilities Board, to tackle a broader range of responsibilities in guiding the future of the state’s schools.

Legislation for the Students FIRST initiative shifted school funding from the traditional property tax levies to appropriations from the state’s sales tax fund. Arizona’s base sales tax rate is five percent and a .6 percent hike will be going to the voters. It also removed the requirement for legislative approval for expenditures within the prescribed guidelines adopted.

Though the legislation originally was to deal with the funding of new school construction and eliminating deficiencies between existing schools, Hull insisted that technology be an essential part of the legislation. “It was only logical that a program to finance new school buildings and equipment include funding for computers and technology,” she says. The program and funding under this initiative are expected to last for five years.

Computer access and connectivity for all students became a top priority as phase one of the initiative. A series of public hearings were held and a consensus was reached that the minimum ratio should be one computer for every eight students. The national average of computers to students is 1:13, but “we wanted better than the national average,” says Darla Jordan, public information officer for the School Facilities Board. Based on the numbers of schools and students, it was determined that about 36,000 computers would be needed statewide to achieve the 1:8 ratio.

According to Dr. Philip Geiger, executive director of the School Facilities Board, approximately $50 million is going to the purchase of computers for the state’s 228 school districts. Not all of the state’s 1,220 public schools will receive computers, however, since some schools already meet or exceed the established ratio.

Spending the Money

Schools were given the choice of 30 different models of computers from 10 different manufacturers, which could be purchased through modified State of Arizona Microcomputer Hardware, Software and Services contracts negotiated with a number of value-added resellers. All units were to be ordered by October 15, with delivery to be completed by March 2001.

Schools could choose from either Pentium III 600 MHz Intel Processors with Windows 98 or NT, or Apple 350 processors with OS9. The minimum system requirements include either a 17-inch color monitor or, in the case of the Macintosh, the 15-inch color integrated monitor, 64 MB RAM, a 20x CD-ROM, a 10 GB hard drive, a network card and three years of on-site service.

Individual schools can purchase additional computers above and beyond their allotments, or upgrade components for the computers they receive, through the negotiated purchasing contracts, but must pay for these items out of their own budgets.

Geiger says a number of schools require renovations to accommodate the additional computers, including extra electrical outlets and network wiring for Internet connections. Structural needs for technology already are being planned for in new schools under construction.

One slight glitch, however -- “We can’t buy (teacher) training. We can buy hardware,” Geiger says. Since the expenditure guidelines did not allow for computer training, purchasing contracts were written to include an additional $60 in the cost of each computer, which would then be rebated by the retailers, to allow funds for teacher training.

Anticipating the New Arrivals

Amidst seas of packing cartons and tangles of cables, Arizona’s educators are ecstatic about the influx of new technology into the schools.

The Gadsten School District was allocated funds for more than 200 computers for its four schools. The district also purchased an additional 70 computers from its own funds, 44 of which are for administrative use. “We’re shooting for a 1:5 ratio,” says Brad Chamberlain, information technology coordinator. In a district where the population is predominantly migrants and all its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, the new computers will bring learning opportunities that otherwise would have been unavailable.

Chamberlain says his district purchased PCs to keep the equipment fairly standardized. Besides, “for every two computers we bought, we got a free printer,” he notes. The goal is for each school to have a computer lab, six to eight computers in each school’s library, and five computers per classroom. He also says the district is hoping to receive a sizable amount of E-rate funds to help pay for the wiring to connect to the Internet.

The sudden influx of new computers has made administrators aware of other needs as well. “We ran into a furniture shortage,” Chamberlain explains. The district needs to spend between $9,000 and $12,000 to purchase computer desks. He also sees one of the primary issues of the technology initiative is having enough trained people to support the network.

Mary Anne Kapp, grants manager for the Prescott School District, says her district was allocated 265 computers, which will be used in seven of the eight schools in the district. According to Kapp, one of the schools already was operating on a 1:6 ratio. All the computers are for student use. In her district, Macs were chosen.

The district’s high school is getting a third computer lab, while several schools will use the new computers to upgrade their labs, sending the older computers to classrooms. Kapp says the computers will enhance the district’s accelerated reading program, and will be especially beneficial in rural areas where access is limited. “The state of Arizona has really stepped up to the plate in meeting the challenges for kids,” she says.

Robbin M. Rittner-Heir is a freelance writer based in Dayton, OH, who writes frequently about educational issues.