Levy seeks stable funds in Anoka-Hennepin district

  • Article by: MARIA ELENA BACA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 1, 2011 - 3:15 PM

Computers and other tech tools never have had a stable funding source, but a new four-year plan seeks to ensure uniform access.

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Jacie Slater came up to the interactive board in Ben Dwyer’s first-grade classroom and sorted pictures into a short story based on their short vowel sounds.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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Anoka-Hennepin school officials don't want taxpayers to think they're approving a Cadillac technology upgrade with their $3 million-a-year, 10-year levy that's going to a vote Nov. 8.

In fact, the district says the estimated $80-per-pupil annual expenditure it is proposing is on the low end of the what metro districts ask taxpayers to provide to support what they classify as technology spending. According to the district, those annual requests range from $53 per student in Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan to $911 in the Hopkins district.

But unlike the proposed renewal of a $48 million annual operating levy that also is on the ballot, approval of the technology levy would mean a tax increase for property owners -- about $31 a year for the owner of the average $180,000 home in the district.

Officials have described catastrophic cuts that would result from failure to renew the operating levy, which is set to expire in 2012.

But passing the technology levy is no less vital, said Patrick Plant, the district's chief technology and information officer.

Currently, about 40 percent of the computers students use are more than six years old. Some are twice that.

Teachers and students describe computers that take nearly half a class period to boot up, then crash in the middle of their projects. Or computers that lack the processing speed to run current programs and applications. Access also is a daily issue, with a current ratio of four students to each computer.

"How many businesses out there are efficiently running today using over-six-year-old computers for their staff to do their jobs?" Plant asked.

At the school board's October meeting, Plant presented his vision for a district-wide technology plan through 2016.

The plan was created with the hope that the levy will pass. If it does, it will be the first time the state's largest district has been able to implement a comprehensive technology plan, which anticipates maintenance, upgrade and replacement costs on a three- to six-year cycle, depending on the device, and a minimum ratio of one computer to every five students.

The district has provided technology tools to students up to this point, but technology has not had a stable funding source since the last time a technology bond was approved, in 1994, Plant said. Previous bond requests were narrowly rejected in 2002 and 2007. In recent years, computers and other tools have been provided from the district's general fund, from onetime grants and from school fundraising efforts.

The new plan calls for replacing the least-functional computers. Those that still have life in them will be used for less demanding jobs, such as teaching keyboarding skills and word processing.

"Ours is a very, very conservative approach," Plant said, adding that having a plan in place will allow the district to negotiate the best maintenance and replacement contracts.

From interactive instruction boards -- the kind that allow early readers to incorporate visual and physical activity to teach phonics and math facts -- to middle school math tutorial videos for preliminary instruction and review, to "paperless" English papers written, submitted and graded on the Internet, instruction already is moving into cyberspace in Anoka-Hennepin -- when teachers are able to embrace it.

Programs like Moodle, which can be accessed from home, offer parents a chance to stay on top of students' assignments and "hover as much as they need to," said Nicole Kronzer, who teaches English 9, Honors English 11 and Creative Writing 1 and 2 at Champlin Park High School.

Making use of shared documents and directories in cyberspace allows her to work more efficiently and keep track of her own and her students' work in a way she couldn't before and wouldn't be able to do with ever-increasing student counts.

"With class sizes increasing and increasing and increasing, I can't continue to be the teacher I was five years ago without help," she said. "The technological piece helps mitigate those really large classes."

Former students tell her it's obvious in their college classes who has worked with technological tools and who has not.

At the middle-school level, Andy Schwen, who teaches at Roosevelt Middle School in Blaine, has his advanced math students watch tutorials on the Web or by DVD at home, and he uses class time to answer questions and delve deeper into the topic. Students also can re-watch the tutorials until they grasp the concepts.

"We're getting deeper into the material and having more higher-level conversations with kids so they're getting more invested and they kind of have a common knowledge when they come into class," he said.

Ben Dwyer uses the interactive Promethean board every day in his first-grade classroom at Johnsville Elementary in Blaine. But he said his classroom's four computers are 11 years old, nearly twice the age of most of his students, who get frustrated and distracted waiting for them to load basic programs. "It takes more monitoring by the teacher to make sure they're staying on task."

All three teachers and Plant said though many students have access to technological tools at home, many do not. A lack of adequate resources at school will only deepen that digital divide, they said.

"We have an excellent school system, and we are doing the very best we can for students," Plant said, "but I would have to say haphazard patchwork funding we have right now creates an environment where we can't ensure all students are developing the basic tech skills necessary for today and to prepare them for future education and the workplace."

Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409

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