‘Carelessness’ leads to Rockport high school’s $56,000 laptop repair bill

Posted Oct. 23, 2011, at 1:32 p.m.
Last modified Oct. 23, 2011, at 2 p.m.

ROCKPORT, Maine — Camden Hills Regional High School spent $56,000 on laptop computer repairs last year, a cost officials are calling astronomically high.

A bill that large could jeopardize the entire laptop program at the school, Camden Hills officials said.

The school is one of 69 statewide that participate in a Maine Learning Technology Initiative program, under the Maine Department of Education, that makes laptops available to high school students.

Camden Hills spends about $150,000 to lease 778 laptop computers each year from the state.The school this year exceeded that budget by more than one-third for repairs. And the $56,000 tab doesn’t include the repairs covered by Apple’s warranty or paid for by students for intentional damage.

“I shivered when I wrote that check. I don’t want to write another one,” said William Shuttleworth, superintendent of the school district.

Compared with other high schools, Camden Hills’ costs are astronomical. Nearby Rockland has a high school of about 520 students, about 100 fewer than Camden Hills, and it paid $5,500 for repairs last year.

Machias Memorial High School spends about $5,000 on repairs for its 140 laptops — that’s about $30 per laptop in repairs compared with Camden Hill’s cost of about $70 per computer.

Among the reasons for the Rockport school’s high bill is carelessness. The IT manager at the school said it’s not uncommon to see students holding one of the white Macbooks balanced on the palm of their hands like a waiter carrying a tray. Sometimes computers get knocked off tables or desks. Sometimes students set them on the floor and other students accidentally step on them.

“We’ve been hammering the message of $56,000. We can’t pay that again. It jeopardizes the program in 2014. We can’t afford it,” said Tom Heath of the school’s technology department.

To pinpoint exactly why the computers keep getting broken, Shuttleworth said he sat down with a group of about 30 seniors this month and asked them, why did this happen?

The first answer he got from the group was carelessness.

“I bet you don’t take your iPhone for granted,” Shuttleworth said in response.

“We didn’t pay for these [laptops],” the student replied.

Other students said there were no consequences for accidentally breaking a computer, that they would just get a new one.

There is some consequence for breaking one of the leased Macbooks. If the damage is intentional, the student must pay. But a student who pays a $50 fee for a laptop at the beginning of the year can cause any accidental damage to the computer and the school will pay for repairs, no matter the cost.

The $50 fee isn’t insurance; it’s more like a one-time damage pass offered by Camden Hills.

“So what would you do differently if you were the boss?” Shuttleworth asked the group of seniors.

One student said the school should periodically check on the computers to see if they are in need of repairs. Another said students shouldn’t get replacement computers.

“If you lose a book, you pay for it and get a new one or you don’t graduate. Maybe that’s what should happen,” one teen said.

The trouble for Camden is that these laptops have become essential, according to Shuttleworth. Without them, teachers can’t go on with their regular lesson plans and assign computer-based homework.

From May to September, the school sent 128 of its 778 computers to be fixed — some with multiple problems — for a total cost of $56,285, according to the documents given to the school board.

According to a report given to the school board this month, the repairs broke down this way:

• 120 broken hinges or casings at $105 each

• 81 broken screens at $322 each

• 37 broken chargers at $79 each

• 16 broken logic boards at $816 each

• Five broken hard drives at $314 each

According to Jeff Mao, who supervises the state program, Camden Hills’ bill is just about the highest bill he has seen. He had seen only one like it before, at Massabesic High School in Waterboro.

Calls made to Massabesic High School were not returned.

“Other schools have issues, but not of this scale,” Mao said. “We said ‘holy moley’ when we saw that number. It’s an outlier in the state. This isn’t happening elsewhere.”

The Department of Education is watching Camden Hills to see how it deals with the problem, according to Mao.

Camden Hills leases its computers from the state, which has a pool of 1,200 laptops ready to be deployed as replacements. To replace a computer would cost the high school about $425. That means it’s cheaper to replace a computer than to repair a logic board — and Camden Hills had 16 broken logic boards.

“They could ask for a replacement and it would cost less,” Mao said. “It’s a local decision.”

According to Heath, the school didn’t know the replacements were so cheap.

“No one gave us that option,” Heath said.

According to Mao, each school is made aware of that option in the online policy manual for the program.

“It’s not a secret,” Mao said.

To get a replacement computer, the school just has to request one from the state. When the state last contracted with Apple to buy 72,000 computers, Apple agreed to give 1 percent more, or an additional 720 computers, to the state. With those extras, the state created a “buffer pool.” That pool grew to 1,200 after some schools returned computers when their enrollments dropped.

Each school may have 1 percent of its damaged computers replaced for free each year. For Camden Hills Regional High School, that works out to about seven free replacements a year.

After that, school districts can buy extra computers from the state.

Unlike the state program that provides free computers to middle schoolers, the high school program is optional. About 55 percent of Maine high schools chose to participate in the program.

Other schools deal with technology in other ways.

It didn’t make much financial sense for Bangor High School, the second-largest high school in the state with 1,400 students, to participate in the state program because of the per-student charges, according to Scott Morrill, the school district’s technology director. Instead, the school has about five computer labs with 15 computers each. Its library has about 50 computers. Each classroom has a few computers and laptops for student use. In total, the school owns about 200 computers — a computer for every seven students.

The school opens the library an hour early and keeps it open two hours after school for students. This model, Morrill argues, will prepare Bangor’s students for a college atmosphere. Colleges usually don’t hand out laptops, but they do offer resources. Also like a college, Bangor uses online programs — namely Google Apps — to assign homework. Students can use any computer with Internet access to work on and turn in their assignments.

One obvious option for Camden Hills Regional High School would be to limit the computer use at the school and outside of school. The high school lets students take the laptops home to do homework. But regimenting the computer use isn’t the way Shuttleworth wants to go. That isn’t the purpose of the program, he said. Students use the laptops like a textbook and teachers assign computer-based homework because they know the students have access.

“It’s essential to student learning. Because a textbook is missing a couple of pages isn’t a good enough reason to not give out textbooks,” Shuttleworth said.

According to the Mao, Shuttleworth’s instincts are good. Limiting students’ access to computers doesn’t help with damage bills, he said.

“Sometimes you see that with a program like this, in order to protect damage they’ll limit when students can take computers home or limit what they can do with them. They think they’re reducing the damage potential, but the less useful the tool becomes the more students become careless because it’s no longer essential,” Mao said.

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