Aging corporate computers -- PCs three to four years old -- are finding a new home in Minnesota's schools through a mixture of charity, entrepreneurship and bargain shopping.

At one end of this recycling chain are donors such as Michael Newman of the Travelers Companies in St. Paul and Dennis Peters at the city of Blaine. They're donating to charity their over-the-hill computers, which still work fine but are falling behind technologically. Corporate donors get to feel good about their donation, and they avoid the cost and headache of PC disposal.

At the other end of the recycling chain are bargain computer shoppers for schools, such as Tim Mathre of Concordia Creative Learning Academy in St. Paul and Pat Osborn of St. Jerome Catholic School in Maplewood. They buy yesterday's PCs -- with newly cleansed hard drives, refurbished parts and two-year warranties -- for as little as $125 each.

Between the two is an unlikely nonprofit company called Minnesota Computers for Schools, based in Bayport. It accepts donations of relatively new corporate PCs (at least a Pentium III processor chip is required), then hires professionals to erase sensitive data from the PCs' disk drives.

Minnesota Computers then pays Stillwater prison inmates 25 cents to $1.50 per hour to refurbish the PCs. That entails taking them apart, rebuilding them with the best parts and customizing them to a school's needs. Then it sells the machines to Minnesota public and private schools or educational nonprofit organizations for $125 to $350 each -- well below the $300 to $500 commercial price for similar used PCs.

"Our pricing is designed so we just break even," said Tamara Gillard, the executive director. She said that while schools still buy some new computers for certain uses, most try to stretch their dollars and fill in the rest of their needs with refurbished computers.

The company began in 1997 as a state-funded program, but after three years, it lost its state funding and became a nonprofit operation of the Minnesota High Technology Foundation. It became independent in 2005.

Last year, Minnesota Computers resold about 2,800 refurbished PCs to 111 Minnesota schools and 10 educational nonprofit companies, Gillard said. The firm has eight employees and to 40 part-time prison inmate workers.

Minnesota Computers isn't the only company selling refurbished computers, but it appears to be the biggest player exclusively serving state schools and educational organizations. Other private firms, such as Strike Twice Computers of St. Louis Park, sell refurbished PCs to individuals rather than schools or corporations. Maxxum Inc., a company in Rush City, Minn., that refurbishes corporate computers, said it sells most of them to corporations and only a few to schools.

Some local corporations gladly donate PCs to Minnesota Computers, and take the small tax break that comes with the donation. "PCs have very little value on the open market if they're four years old," said Newman, director of charitable contributions for the Travelers Companies. "So we were looking for a way to surplus our computers, in a 'green' way, for some meaningful educational purpose. Minnesota Computers is customizing these PCs for schools, and they know what they're doing." Travelers donates 300 to 400 computers a year to the program.

Peters, Blaine's information systems director, said donating to Minnesota Computers frees the city from the otherwise onerous task of having to dispose of the machines by junking them, reselling them for almost nothing or deciding which school to favor with a donation.

"The question came up of why we would donate to one school and not another," Peters said. "I felt uncomfortable about that."

Ten years is too old

Corporate donors are the best source of used PCs, Gillard said.

"By the time individuals recycle a PC, it could be 10 years old, which would not suit a school's needs," Gillard said. "But businesses replace their PCs on a three- to five-year cycle, and many of them are at the three-year end of that range."

The schools that buy PCs from Minnesota Computers seem satisfied. While larger school districts, such as the St. Paul Public Schools, buy occasionally from Minnesota Computers, some smaller schools rely heavily on the firm. Those small schools particularly like the low price, the customization (buyers can choose a PC's manufacturer, processor power and disk-drive capacity) and the two-year warranty that Minnesota Computers provides.

For example, St. Jerome's, a private school with about 160 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, prefers to buy Minnesota Computers' used corporate PCs for $200 to $250 rather than buy new consumer PCs for as little as $300. The refurbished PCs usually have higher-quality electronic components, which means they're less prone to technical failures, said Osborn, the computer and technology teacher. And the two-year warranty, which covers parts, labor and replacement, has been the most attractive feature, he said.

"If a PC dies, they'll work with you and send out a part to fix it," he said. "In years past, they even had a guy who would stop here on his way home from work with a spare part such as a hard drive."

At Concordia Creative, a public charter school with 220 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, Minnesota Computers' prices and warranties makes PCs almost disposable items, said Mathre, the business manager.

"If we can get two years out of a PC workstation that cost $100 to $150, that suits us," Mathre said.

Steve Alexander • 612-673-4553