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Duluth school district to phase out Smart Boards for basic displays

Technology intern McKayla Vokovan checks a Smart Board at Ordean-East Middle School on Thursday. Each check includes dusting and wiping down the boards and camera calibration and board orientation adjustments. Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com

Smart Boards are set to be phased out from Duluth school district classrooms beginning next summer.

A major selling point at the advent of the $315 million long-range facilities plan, also known as the Red Plan, most of the interactive boards are past their prime. And there isn't money to replace them.

Red Plan money wasn't intended to buy eventual replacements of the technology it first paid for, but district technology manager Bart Smith expected new money would follow to address evolving needs.

"It really hasn't happened," he said.

That means that as millions of dollars in technology fails, it won't be replaced. What continues to operate will run well beyond recommended lifespans — and it's not just Smart Boards. Video security systems, computers, printers, projectors and classroom sound amplifiers installed as part of the Red Plan — approved in 2007 and completed in 2013 — are outdated.

No money for tech

The district's entire technology infrastructure is worth about $8.4 million.

Red Plan money couldn't be used for technology replacement, said Kerry Leider, retired property and risk manager for the district, who managed the plan for the district.

"There was a lot of conversation about the fact that those systems would need some ongoing financing plans," he said, because the large initial investment meant upgrades would be needed all at once, and much more quickly than building repairs.

For example, Leider said, every 7-10 years the district would have to determine replacement funding, which could include a potential request to the community to pay for it.

While a technology referendum is up to the School Board, superintendent Bill Gronseth said he wants to learn what the community wants before making any kind of recommendation. This month, the board is set to vote on a separate ask for more operating levy money in November — the sort of tax increase that pays for smaller class sizes and other classroom expenses.

The district currently has no savings to invest in updated technology, and the district is required to offer basic necessities first: things like busing and heating.

New money would be necessary to invest heavily in a technology upgrade, Gronseth said.

Last year in Minnesota about a dozen school districts asked taxpayers for more technology money through bond referendums. Most were successful, according to Minnesota School Boards Association data.

"You never saw them 10 years ago," said Greg Abbott, communications director for the association. "But today (technology referendums) are very common because kids need to work with (updated) technology."

On the district's wishlist is a device for every student — likely a Chromebook — to be used in class for interactive learning. But Chromebooks come at a cost: about $1.6 million annually, according to district calculations.

Those costs include a Chromebook for each of the 8,000-plus students, employee training, licenses, cases, repairs and additional tech staff.

Installed in the 17 district schools — including alternative locations — are 572 Smart Boards and their projectors, some of which were installed well before the Red Plan. They cost about $5,000 each.

The plan is to remove the oldest first, at a pace of 60 per year through 2028. The first 60 will go if the district's technology budget is increased enough; still an unknown. That would allow the purchase of display screens.

Up first are Lakewood and Stowe elementary schools, among the first schools to have Smart Boards. The boards will be replaced by large screens to display information from the teacher's computer and, if the money ever comes, information from students' computers.

'Sign of the times'

Money designated for technology spending via state aid and property tax income is drawn from the same pot as textbook and equipment purchases, like snow-blowers. Less than $2 million is available in 2019 to cover all those needs.

Technology will get about 70 percent of that, said Peggy Blalock, the district's finance manager. The tech department also receives about $700,000 in general fund money, along with some rebate cash, which amounted to $140,000 for the 2017-18 school year. The budget — which was $2.1 million in 2018 — will likely see a small increase for the 2018-19 school year, Blalock said.

That supports the district's basic needs, including emergency communication, a computer for each teacher, internet access and some computers for student use. Consultants have told Smith a district of Duluth's size should be spending twice that to keep current.

"It will take us 10 years to replace Smart Boards at the current pace," Smith said, compared to a more typical 1-2 years.

That means the last schools that received them — Congdon and Myers-Wilkins elementaries — will potentially use theirs for 15 years, or nearly twice as long as a typical life cycle.

Districts across the country are beginning to offer personal devices for each student, Smith said. It eliminates the need for computer labs and keeps kids in class with a familiar device for things like testing. So far, each school in Duluth has at least one cart of Chromebooks to share.

Lincoln Park Middle School teacher Dean Herold — who first began teaching using chalk — said many teachers have lesson plans using Smart Board resources and will have to adjust those as boards are phased out.

"The biggest question is how long before we are able to afford new technology," he said. "No district that I have heard of is able to purchase these tools districtwide without help from the state through legislation and local levies/referendums being passed."

Today, kids need to be taught with the latest technology to enter the workforce or college successfully, said districtwide Parent Teacher Student Association president Stacey DeRoche.

"It's a sign of the times," she said. "But we've got to fund it."