Opinoin: Big ideas, big numbers & big questions for Mesa County schools
Free Press Opinion Columnist
I recently presented to the volunteer members of the District Accountability Committee. These are selfless community members keenly interested in making their public schools better. They attend meetings, request information, dive deep into details, and make recommendations to the Board of Education on what the district needs to do better.
I followed my colleague, Odus Harwood, who is the director of technology. He’s a tough act to follow because technology is a big deal for our transformation into a 21st century school district. His presentation was impressive. He spoke of networking schools from Fruita to Palisade in miles of cabling, fiber optics, WANs and LANs. He went into instructional technology, informational technology, the modern classroom, and renewal rates. Megabytes became gigabytes became terabytes.
Each of our service techs are responsible for 1,400 computers;
Each computer shares 3.4 students;
Sixty-five percent of our classrooms have the three most important pieces of technology required of a modern classroom;
It takes another $3 million dollars to finish the other 35 percent;
And, the modern classroom requires eight — not three — key pieces of technology.
During Q&A, the committee got right to the point: how much would it cost to put a computing device in every student’s hands?
It’s an easy question to ask, but difficult to answer. Buying the device is the cheap and easy part. Remember, our facilities are on average 43 years old — computers on every desk wasn’t a consideration when we landed a man on the moon. Teaching resources are just now beginning to integrate student-specific technology as a learning tool.
Lesson plans and instructional methodologies have to develop to utilize the technology in those devices. In other words, there is a logical sequence of events that have to occur leading up to the easy step of buying the device. Those steps will likely cost around $20 million. Keep that number in mind.
Meanwhile, most kids have a device already. And, the pace of progress is relentless. While we’re trying to add basic technology to schools, the industry reinvents itself every two years. Consider the highlights of the Consumers Electronic Show two weeks ago — smartphone functionality in a watch, driverless cars by 2017, 16K high-definition televisions, and immersive virtual-reality helmets for gaming and simulators. By the time we’re ready to implement, the devices will be different.
BIG IDEAS, BIG NUMBERS
Then it was my turn, with the task of explaining the role of communications. Simply put, communications can’t directly help the district improve. Communications help the community understand what the district is doing, what challenges the district faces, and how the community can help us address those challenges. Technology was a great lead-in example. We have a big idea, born of necessity: we must become a 21st century school district to prepare students for Information Age success. That involves expansion and integration of technology, which is expensive but foundational to the mission. How will the community pay for it?
You could have heard a pin drop. No one, including me, wanted to say “raising taxes,” but that’s what they were all thinking. I asked the group, if “anyone was familiar with the negative factor?” No one was. The negative factor is an accounting trick state legislators invented to reduce the funding they provide to schools. The School Finance Act and Amendment 23 prescribes how the state funds education. Amendment 23 protects the funding from recession. Until one hit. Then, legislators invented the negative factor as a work-around. For District 51, our budget is reduced by about $22 million a year. Your state legislators are keeping that from benefiting the current students in our community today. Across the state, it’s $1 billion a year.
State legislators will soon head into session and the governor will submit his budget. It will likely include the negative factor again. Here’s where we stand:
Colorado invests among the least in education in the nation;
Legislators are holding back $1 billion dollars on top of that;
They’re adding layers of ineffective and expensive testing requirements; and
We desperately need to transform into a 21st century district.
It’s a recipe for disaster for our students who are also our future. Will you write your legislator if necessary? Will you ask them to lift the negative factor to allocate your taxes in accordance with the state constitution? Will you ask them to eliminate expensive, outdated summative testing? We will provide the contact information, but legislators only listen to voters not districts.
Free Press columnist Dan Dougherty is director of communications for School District 51: Mesa County Valley Schools. Comments and feedback are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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