This op-ed first appeared in STAT-us-BCPS A grassroots education coalition working to slow down the high-tech takeover of Baltimore County Public Schools. Check it out and give them your support!
What’s the Status of STAT Costs? In a Dozen Years, that Could Be a Billion Dollar Question
A year ago, the public first glimpsed the costs of BCPS’ digital initiative when the “STAT budget” was released. A revised tally is back, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.
By Joanne C. Simpson
A blur of money is spinning around the virtual vortex where our Students and Teachers are supposedly Accessing Tomorrow via STAT. The question: Is this a space-time passage to the future or a budgetary black hole?
The $1.6 billion Baltimore County Public School’s proposed operating budget for next school year was just released—and the cost of the laptop-per-student initiative still remains nearly as opaque as wormholes and astrophysics.
Overall, STAT’s evolving scenario seems a mash-up of multimillion-dollar “techbooks,” controversial Spanish-language software, unclear rising expenses, possibly stealth purchasing policies, and interactive classroom projectors that could tap a school’s budget for nearly $6,000—per projector.
The updated BCPS “6-Year Proposed Instructional Digital Conversion Plan” predicts spending on the one-laptop-per-student program at $257 million by 2018-19, including an initial $13 million for wireless network infrastructure and nearly $200 million for students’ and teachers’ laptops.
The listed “total cost” of the 6-year conversion comes in about $28 million less than last year’s spending projections—mostly because of deleted or redirected millions slated overall for projectors, a project temporarily slowed last year by a school board vote.
For now, “Total Annual Costs,” are pegged at $57 million (including $2.4 million each year for BCPS One, and about $52 million annually to lease laptops that turn over every four years).
BCPS Superintendent S. Dallas Dance downplayed STAT’s financial heft at the Jan. 10 Board of Education meeting when he presented the proposed 2017-18 budget, which requests an 8.5 percent increase—$64 million more—from the county. “To dispel a rumor, STAT has not driven the Baltimore County Public School’s budget,” Dance said, highlighting increased spending on salaries. “I’ll say that one more time: STAT has not contributed to growing budgets.”
Yet concerns about costs remain:
- Spending authorities* have been approved for contracts worth tens of millions of dollars in digital curricula and related software beyond the STAT budget—at least $74 million and counting, records show.
- Costs will likely rise as the student population at 112,000 is expected to increase by 6,000 within the decade.
- And BCPS’ pilots are already creating financial woes: nearly $4 million has apparently gone out the door on the dysfunctional ScholarChip ID program alone—and this in a school district with many dire needs.
So overall, what exactly has been spent on digital-related curricula, services, hardware, personnel, training, and infrastructure from anywhere in the public school budget—or is slated to be spent? At the current rate, STAT costs could approach $1 billion by the first dozen years, sources say. More BCPS transparency would be helpful, yet an external or state legislative audit might be the only way to know for sure.
A school board budget work session, open to the public, is set for Tues. Jan. 24. The overall FY 18 superintendent’s budget will go before the board, County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, and the County Council for consideration. As people review this 328-page document (nearly $2 billion including the capital budget), here are a few areas to explore:
How Much is that ‘Tech Book’ in the Window?
Overall, most STAT costs are perpetual if BCPS plans to remain a highly digital school district—expenditures that could rise substantially.
A flurry of digital curricula spending authorities for vendor contracts were approved or expanded by the school board in 2016. For example, Discovery Education ($4 million expanded to $10 million (!) for just two more years); Middlebury Interactive Languages ($7.5 million) for 13 years; and DreamBox Learning, Inc., whose contract would nearly double for just the next 9 months, to $1.2 million. (See contract spending authority links for such vendors below, or at.)
Discovery Education’s contract will include “techbooks,” which do seem to offer some cool new options: a blend of text and visual media in different languages, and text-to-speech (read-aloud). Yet students’ laptops are already loaded with some of those services, such as text-to-speech in seven languages via Kurzweil 3000 Firefly.
Costs for “techbooks” gave pause to nearby Montgomery County Public Schools, a larger system with 159,000 students. MCPS is also known as a digital district.
“We clearly as a system are looking at what the possibilities are for the future in terms of digital resources and digital textbooks,” Betsy Brown, MCPS’ director of curriculum, has said. “But we have to consider cost effectiveness, and we also have to examine how current the resources will be.”
Brown told the Gazette: “There are no big savings incentives in making the transition from textbooks to digital tech books.”
MCPS has elected to focus district funds on Discovery Education’s popular video streaming services, at about $260,000 annually since 2014, according to MCPS records.
BCPS, which already had video streaming before the $6 million expansion, has said the “techbooks” would cost less than regular textbooks, but long-term licensing fees are unclear. Here are some struggles other districts have found, especially when they slash paper textbook funding in favor of digital options.
Meanwhile, Middlebury Interactive Languages (MIL), the centerpiece of BCPS’ world languages Passport Program, recently expanded to 40 elementary schools. MIL also exemplifies ongoing software and other fees. “Once the program is fully expanded to all schools, the anticipated annual fee will be $550,000 each year. The site license cost will be $5,000 per school once 51 schools are attained,” board records show. Software licensing fees, online or cloud subscriptions can increase digital costs to districts.
MIL also has raised controversy elsewhere. Until recently, the computer-based language program partnered with Middlebury College, whose professors staged a revolt and no-confidence vote in 2014 because of quality problems and questions about co-owner K12, Inc,. a troubled online education company. In 2015, the Vermont college sold its 40 percent stake in MIL to the for-profit K12, which is now the sole owner.
Numerous other spending authorities for digital curricula or related contracts have been approved or expanded by the school board in the last year, including Curriculum Associates/iReady ($1.2 million); Code to the Future ($1 million); and Apex Learning ($3 million, with $2.5 million for about two more years). The list goes on.
Overall, such big-dollar figures certainly surpass the $1 million slated per year in the STAT budget under Curriculum Resources/client software, some of which is being piloted in schools and set to expand. What will the costs be then? Can these vendor expectations even be met?
Consider other BCPS pilots, like the student lanyard ID program, whose vendor, ScholarChip Card LLC, was paid at least $3.7 million by mid-2016, according to BCPS sources. Superintendent Dance did a promotional video for ScholarChip as the program launched here in 2014 (among other edtech tie-ins to BCPS vendors, and a recent superintendent ethics violation finding).
Nearly $4 million for a mostly failed pilot? (Students no longer wear the ID lanyards, which were onerous; swipe-in attendance kiosks were sent back or sit idle, and other problems.) Just ask teachers or principals. The original spending authority was for a whopping $10 million; are payments still going out? Does BCPS have this kind of champagne budget? Could other cash-strapped school systems pay for all this?
When school board members in September asked how the STAT budget could cover the Discovery Education contract alone, administrators cited funding from other district curriculum coffers. A county audit of last year’s budget noted significant “areas of under-spending” by BCPS, including textbook supplies, special education operational supplies, and transportation professional services.
The Office of the County Auditor wanted to know: “why BCPS has chosen to prioritize this initiative over other competing funding needs.”
Creative Procurement 101
Many of these for-profit companies, meanwhile, are being awarded no-bid contracts under a BCPS curriculum policy, Superintendent Rule 6002 and related.
Under the policy, curricula are evaluated by BCPS staff and others, without ‘requests for proposals’ or other bidding processes. (Discovery Education’s contract also includes professional development services, not just curricula.)
And this despite the fact that no-bid contracts have raised concerns in area school districts and elsewhere. The Maryland Office of Legislative Audits in 2015 also criticized BCPS for a lack of “competitive procurement methods” for various services. BCPS said the district is complying with state laws.
Board-approved “spending authorities” usually mean BCPS could spend up to a listed amount. Dance has pointed out that actual contract costs sometimes come in lower (though many spending authorities return to the board for a vote to expand).
In addition, and possibly more concerning, the superintendent apparently has other sole powers: “Contracts or contract modifications of $500,000 or less may be executed by the Superintendent or his/her designee,” under a BCPS Policy 3215 questioned at the Jan. 10 board meeting. It remains unclear how often this option is used and how.
This all seems to leave the door open for a frightening lack of oversight.
The superintendent does seem savvy at finding money for STAT (which the FY18 budget notes “requires a significant funding commitment”) from various sources, including federal E-rate funds for networking, and a $1.3 million grant to help support STAT—which will run out after next year. With all the financial pressure, the squeeze is on. BCPS internal “redirect” efforts have been noted elsewhere. In the 2015 Maryland State Education Technology Plan, BCPS staff answered survey questions about the district’s tech integration, including: “What are your consistent sources of funding?”
So, again, what are the real costs of STAT, lost opportunities and all?
Overall, there’s lots of uncertainty about “forever costs” for BCPS’ out-in-front digital initiative being watched by districts around the nation, nay the world, as a model for tech in education—despite unknown long-term learning outcomes, high costs, and student measures like BCPS’ 2016 PARCC standardized test scores lower than area counties.
Still, BCPS wins awards for STAT, here, here and here, mostly from edtech industry-supported groups. Regarding one event cited: “The United Nations General Assembly was the backdrop for a keynote address by the BCPS superintendent to schools and global education, business, and technology leaders hosted by Hewlett-Packard,” notes the DILA 2015 Open Door Policy Award, hosted by EdSurge, Inc. and Digital Promise.
BCPS is using Hewlett-Packard tablet/laptops, and Microsoft software, in its classrooms: The spending authority for the HP device contract: $205 million.
How is STAT Going So Far?
First rolled out in Fall 2014, STAT’s $1,400 HP EliteBook Revolve 810s are now in grades K-6th, and 7th in several test schools known as “Lighthouse Schools.” Three high schools are testing the laptops and digital curricula in grades 9-12, including Owings Mills, Chesapeake, and Pikesville, and will continue to pilot STAT next year, Dance said.
A series of evaluations revealing successes and flaws so far have been conducted by the Johns Hopkins University Center for Research and Reform in Education (CRRE). Parent responses have been mixed—with support for the tablet/laptop hybrids and digital learning options, yet ongoing concerns about increased screen time and physical or visual fallout for students, as well as software glitches, increased reliance on computer-embedded assessments, funding and other issues. (See agenda/video under Meetings tab for public comment, Jan 10 meeting.)
One parent noted recently on ABCSchools: Advocates for Baltimore County Schools Facebook public group that it seems BCPS is serving as an example to convince other school districts to “engage in this great experiment that was really all about using the public ed system to research and develop the EdTech products [that] private industry is trying to develop with no knowledge if it all will even work or be beneficial to children.
“And in the meantime we will spend hundreds of millions on STAT which we could have spent on what we already know through research already works. Smaller class sizes, equitable healthy facilities, and we might even give every child in every school free breakfast and lunch.”
With two children in the school system, I share many of the same concerns.
There are other worries. The proposed budget indicates downward trends in student performance, (p.103), including a drop in Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) scores for grade 3 students, from 57 % reading on-grade level in 2013-14, before STAT, to 50 % of third-graders in 2015-16—after all grades 1-3 had the devices.
At the Jan. 10 meeting, Dance emphasized a focus on human capital over tech in the superintendent’s FY 18 budget. “Eighty-three percent of our budget is going to people, with salaries and benefits,” he said. “And we want to make sure we focus on our people.” The budget does includes a 2 percent pay increase for employees “and a plan to hire more than 100 new teachers.” (The district had that many unfilled teaching positions just a couple weeks before school started in the Fall.)
Yet there’s the ongoing 168 teacher/mentor positions to support STAT—with nearly all annual salary costs outside the STAT budget (about $8 million for teachers not assigned to classrooms), an issue raised recently in TABCO teacher association campaigns.
BCPS school board member Kathleen Causey has voiced concerns about high-dollar contracts, purchasing Policy 3215, and opportunity costs: “This is an unprecedented expense for untested curriculum,” Causey said after the meeting, noting that children “need to develop their humanity before we focus on all this intensive data learning.”
Pricey Interactive Projectors: In The House
The Tale of the Interactive Projectors reveals the push-and-pull of trying to create what some term a “digital ecosystem” in a school district whose physical ecosystem is already plagued with crumbling school buildings, brown drinking water, a lack of functioning AC and heat, oft-scarce classroom supplies, and ever-challenging student nutritional needs.
(Transportation woes have been on many parents’ minds, as noted lately in social media. Yet at a board Building and Contracts Committee meeting, a contract to put “retread” tires on school buses was discussed. A few board members expressed concern, but staff said it was “okay,” because recapped tires were being put “on the back wheels.” Contract # ARA-206-16, $1 million).
For the proposed Boxlight projectors (the administration wanted 6,900 for each classroom-plus), the virtual rug was pulled out when, in February 2016, a contract for $41.4 million (!) was rejected by the school board and sent out to be rebid under different parameters.
Trouble is: The projectors are still being bought, apparently outside board purview.
Individual schools are being told to pick up the tab out of dwindling BCPS allocations. A July 29 superintendent’s weekly bulletin to staff: “School administrators who plan on purchasing projectors in school year 2016-2017 should review the approved projectors.”
The required options, according to BCPS documents: $5,899 with amplified sound system; $4,522 (sans that sound system); and a non-interactive table-top projector and package, $1,051.
Yet schools’ per-student allocations for instructional materials and supplies from BCPS have dropped, nearly 6 percent in elementary schools by FY 15—from $142 per student to $134, a tightening of discretionary purchases to “ensure compatibility with STAT specifications,” according to the 2016 STAT Biannual Conversions Update. In fact, under STAT “all technology will be fully transitioned to a central budget” by next year, and instructional supplies centralized further (see pp. 83, 118 of the FY 18 budget).
At what cost in the long run? Those interactive projectors for 6,000 or so classrooms would still top $30 million. Meanwhile, the Boxlight projectors, which board members and county officials questioned because of high pricing and other issues, are already showing up in BCPS’ new elementary schools. The ‘selected’ projectors also use components by Clinton, the firm whose contract the board turned back.
(They might be terrific classroom tools, though comparable or more-established classroom projectors could be purchased for less, experts say. Either way, some digital services, such as Discovery Education, seem to rely on getting them in place.)
School board member Causey brought up the projector discrepancy in comments at the board meeting. “It has come to my attention recently that there is one major contract that somehow has gone awry,” Causey said.
“There is a requirement for schools to choose from one of two or so choices in a new interactive classroom set-up,” she added. But “is that the equipment the board feels is the best use of taxpayer dollars?”
Resistance is Futile?
No matter how the pixels fall, taxpayers—that means us—are the ones footing the Very Big Bill for STAT, the Digital Ecosystem, 24/7 Learning, A Digital Conversion, or whatever this “transformation” might be called. Are we heading down a financially unsustainable path? At this point, I’d call for a state legislative audit to find out.
Among pressing FY 18 budget questions:
- What constitutes “other instructional costs/contracted services,” which have jumped from $10.6 million in FY 14 to $53.6 million in the proposed budget? (p. 80) That’s a 500 percent increase.
- Which vendors are getting paid an “increase of $6.2 million in one-time expenditures” for “new BCPS curriculum materials.” (p. 69). About $7 million is also listed in the budget of the Chief Academic Officer, who selects curricula for “instructional textbooks & supplies.” (p. 223).
These and other queries were posed to BCPS officials last week, with no answers by the time of this post. Baltimore County Councilwoman Vicki Almond’s office has forwarded the questions to county auditors who will review the school budget.
Some responses, and the updated “STAT budget,” can be found in this board Work Session document released 1/24.
Yet we still have no tally on superintendent and staff travel expenses for dozens and dozens of conferences to promote STAT. Consider this Jan. 24-27 Future of Education Technology Conference in Orlando, FL, where at least four BCPS staffers, including Ryan Imbriale, executive director of Innovative Learning—and his wife, Jeanne, director of Enterprise Applications—are presenting to school leaders, with such themes as: “Learn the value of utilizing a digital ecosystem in your district.”
In the end, this all seems the tip of the proverbial iceberg (oddly enough, school administrators compare BCPS to the Titanic (see this video, 9 min. 35 sec), apparently since a large school system is hard to turn. Maybe they don’t know what affect that analogy has on concerned parents).
The 2016 BCPS STAT Biannual Conversions Update (a story for another day) offers clues to other future costs. Just consider STAT’s projected “Eight Conversions: Curriculum. Instruction. Assessment. Organizational Development. Infrastructure. Policy. Budget. Communications.” Among the policies “revised to align with STAT:” the much-troubled new Grading and Reporting Policy 5210.
Are we converted yet?
Alarms are sounding—at least in my ears. That document, handed to board members and others yet not posted online, notes: “As we conclude year three, the eight conversions are progressing toward the goal of systemic institutionalization by the year 2018.”
And I’ll say that one more time: Systemic Institutionalization.
Joanne C. Simpson is a former staff writer for The Miami Herald, South Florida Sun-Sentinel, and Johns Hopkins Magazine, as well as a BCPS parent, college educator, and freelance writer based in Baltimore.
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