Inver Grove Heights lost out on $7 million over 10 years to upgrade technology.
Did an iPad fixation cost Inver Grove Heights schools a chance at money to equip classrooms for 21st century learning?
Within hours of a levy defeat last month, the buzz on Facebook was about a disconnect between district needs, such as an upgraded computer network and a new telephone system, and the perception that school leaders wanted to buy every child an iPad.
Apple's popular tablet computer, for a lot of people, "means gaming device or some sort of plaything," said Liz Niemioja, a mother of two young children in Inver Grove Heights. "They don't know how it can really assist in learning, and they don't know how it can save a lot of money," she said.
Leaders in the 3,794-student district had proposed raising $700,000 per year for 10 years to meet technology needs. A homeowner with a $200,000 house would have paid about $60 per year in additional taxes.
Voters rejected the measure, 1,614 to 845, in a March 27 special referendum. Voters had rejected the measure once before, 2,025 to 1,646, last November.
The district's informational campaign included a video with testimonials from teachers about the advantages of innovative teaching tools. Interspersed among the scenes with teachers were scenes of children using iPads in the classroom.
In the Facebook comment stream, Niemioja was among those who agreed that the district should have done a better job of explaining its needs.
"Put it on the ballot AGAIN and simplify it to the nuts and bolts -- and get people off this iPad obsession," she wrote. "The iPad example confused people until it became the only focus."
There's a growing need to get new tools, such as laptops or iPads, into students' hands and to train teachers on how to make the most effective use of them, said Greg Abbott, the communications director for the Minnesota School Boards Association.
A wired school can save money on textbooks by buying e-books and can work the many educational apps into classroom lessons, he said.
To pay the costs of keeping up with technology, some districts have proposed "capital project" levies, as Inver Grove Heights did, Abbott said. The passage rate, he said, has been "very high."
Nearby districts where voters have approved capital project levies include Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan, West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan and South St. Paul, according to a chart prepared by Inver Grove Heights schools.
Lakeville is striving to become one of the most-wired districts in Minnesota -- Superintendent Lisa Snyder calls it a "learning initiative, not a technology initiative" -- and was set to acquire 1,900 new iPads this month.
Explaining the technological needs of a modern school district is a challenge, said Cindy Nordstrom, the Inver Grove Heights school board chairwoman.
Servers, security and "wires pulled through buildings" are all required before a child in a classroom can call up an educational app on an iPad, said Nordstrom, a fifth-grade teacher in the nearby Rosemount district whose background includes work in technology.
"I don't know how to educate the general population on all those behind-the-scenes needs," she said. "Too many of our voters think that it's just purchasing iPads. That is not the case."
Nordstrom said the school board and administration were committed to making sure students keep up as technology evolves, and the board needs to come to a decision on its next step.
The district now spends $1.1 million from its general fund on those needs each year, she said, but does not envision giving a laptop or iPad to every child. Giving children equal access is a goal, however, she said.
As for voters who think iPads are only for games, Nordstrom said she thinks "they're misinformed."
"I think they have their own perceptions, and it doesn't match with the reality of what's happening in the classroom," she said. "We need to realize as parents that our kids are learning differently than the way we learned."
For Niemioja, worries for her children's future came into focus when the grandmother of another child told her slate and chalk are sufficient.
"I really feel like that is the attitude," she said. "At the polling place I think that revealed itself.
"I think there's a disconnect."
William C. Crum • 952-746-3282