Auburn school’s decision to use budget funds to buy iPads not sitting well with some

Posted June 24, 2011, at 5:20 a.m.
Last modified June 24, 2011, at 10:07 a.m.

AUBURN, Maine — When School Superintendent Tom Morrill said in April that Auburn would become Maine’s first public school district to give iPad 2 tablet computers to all kindergartners this fall, he pledged to find $200,000 to pay for them.

Plan A was to buy iPads with grants and donations, Morrill said. Plan B: Find the money in the school budget.

Plan A failed, Morrill said this week, because there wasn’t enough time to secure grants and still distribute iPads this fall. Instead, school officials found $228,000 in the 2010-11 budget that ends June 30.

But, buying 400 iPads from the budget in a year when the School Department said it needed a 5 percent increase is not sitting well with some.

“They said they were going to go out and write up a grant to pay for those iPads,” said Auburn City Councilor Ray Berube. “Year after year they say they’ve cut their budget to bare bones. That’s their story.”

Berube called school spending “frivolous.” He said the department had changed furnaces in school buildings, was buying air conditioning for schools, and now, iPads.

“They always seem to have money to do what they want,” Berube said. “I do not believe this is the best time to be spending as much as they can.”

Stella Gammaitoni, spokeswoman for Auburn Citizens for Responsible Education, a group that created a Facebook page to oppose iPads for kindergartners, said she was frustrated to learn the money is coming out of the budget.

“It doesn’t seem like they’re being honest,” Gammaitoni said. Not having a solid funding base for the iPads will create a budget problem next year when school officials want to buy the next round of iPads for kindergartners, she said.

Gammaitoni has followed the iPad initiative, attended meetings and raised questions. Too often, administrators are “changing their story” on how the iPads are being paid for or how many will be bought, Gammaitoni said. “It seems like the whole thing has so many inconsistencies.”

In a meeting with the Sun Journal on Wednesday, School Committee Chairman David Das said the $48,000 used to buy iPads this past spring came from higher-than-expected state reimbursement of MaineCare services, among other accounts.

Maine Department of Education Deputy Commissioner Jim Rier said school departments are free to use MaineCare reimbursements for other programs because the state reimburses districts for money already spent.

But hours after the meeting, Morrill said no MaineCare reimbursement money was used for iPads.

Das later explained why he said one thing and Morrill said another. Officials had considered using money from the MaineCare account, and Das was under the impression it was being used. Upon review, the district discovered that if it had spent MaineCare reimbursements on iPads, overall spending for 2010-11 would have exceeded the approved budget, which would be illegal.

Instead, money was used from other accounts in which the spending was approved and money was left over, Das said.

Morrill said the School Department hasn’t given up on grant money and will try to take that route next year. “We always said we’d look at multiple funding, and grants are right up there,” he said.

After looking into grant money, the School Department discovered some foundations didn’t accept proposals until January, and that Auburn needs good data on the iPads’ effectiveness.

“We’ve made some good contacts, and hopefully those are going to open some doors,” Morrill said. “You need to have a solid presentation when you go to foundations. It’s hard to sell wishes.”

This fall, half of the department’s 285 kindergartners will get iPads at the start of school, the other half in early November. Test scores between those two groups will be compared. Educators suspect the data will show that iPads enhanced kindergarten learning.

Das said school spending has been frugal.

In the past six years, education money from Auburn taxpayers has decreased by 7 percent, he said.

“We do have a bare-bones budget,” Das said. According to the state education funding formula, Auburn spends millions less than what it should on education.

“We’re in the bottom 10 percent in the state for per-pupil operating costs and are significantly lower than our peer districts,” Das said.

This year, the school budget reduced property taxes, said Assistant Superintendent Katy Grondin, who becomes superintendent July 1. “I don’t think people understand that.”

See more news from the Sun Journal at http://www.sunjournal.com/.

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