No Child Left Unbooted in Natick

Natick, MA Superintendent of Schools Dr. Peter Sanchioni, putting a whole lot of clever lipstick earlier this month on a “looky what I found!” decision to raid a high school construction project’s (borrowed) contingency fund to underwrite – with tax dollars – a newly discovered necessity for educating teenagers: personal laptops for everyone:

"What we feel, and the case we’re going to make to the MSBA, is that they’ve totally underestimated what a technology budget should be in a 21st century school," Sanchioni said. "We don’t just want a model school in construction, we want a model school in instruction."

The plan, as laid out in this MetroWest Daily News article, calls for raiding the contingency fund of the new Natick High School building project to the tune of $2M, to provide personal laptops for every student in the 9-12 school by the time the new building opens in 2012 (the staff is already provided for). Essentially, that means borrowing this money for 20 years, but I’ll get to that.

This is wrong on so many levels, it’s hard to know where to start – and I’ve delayed posting this for days out of fear I’ll end up getting sucked into writing a long criticism.

To begin with, there’s the presumption that teens need computers to learn in the 21st century, or something like that. Well, I guess I don’t know how anyone else ever managed back in the Dark Ages of pen and paper, but I do know that kids primarily use computers for social networking, role playing, and procuring entertainments that span the gamut from the ditzy to the despicable, and I’m not seeing how saddling their notoriously undisciplined selves with such dubious tools during the school day is going to help their intellectual growth. I’ll put the primitively delivered education my two young daughters receive up against the iEducation of the tweeting teens any day.

Even if we incorrectly surmise that there is a real benefit to having classrooms full of laptop-carrying teens, there’s another poor assumption being put forth here that this makes for a proper expenditure of public funds. To the extent that computers are useful tools for producing work, it makes sense to make them publically available for use, both in schools and in public libraries that can be used outside of school hours, as has in fact been the case for years.

But it makes no more sense for the public to pay for privately-used computers for these kids than it would to publically provide for their personal clothing, their personal food, their personal eyeglasses or other medical needs, their personal automobile transportation, or the electricity they need to run their computers at home – and that’s just the beginning of the list of student “needs.” All of these things are, in one way or another, pre-requisite to the ability to use the laptops as intended, and therefore more fundamental. Perhaps in the eyes of the public school establishment, all these things should be publically provided for, either directly by a centralized government or through local soviets, but I trust most people can see both the moral and practical absurdity of it. There is absolutely no moral justification, in example, for taking tax dollars from long-time resident pensioners trying to hang onto their property, and funneling it in the form of “free” laptops to the teenagers of the nomadic dual-income professional families that often occupy the revolving-door McMansions that have become ubiquitous in Natick, as in so many similar towns.

That still doesn’t even touch the specific question of whether it is proper to use building project funds to purchase these laptops, or the even more specific question of whether it is fitting to do so by raiding the project contingency funds. The fact of the matter here is that these computers are being procured on a three-year lease, and being paid for by 20-year bonds. How insane is that? If you follow the link to the article, you can find a verbose Natick School Committee member in the comment boxes trying to rationalize this behavior with a pathetic “everybody does it” argument, but it is downright irresponsible to borrow money for 20 years to pay for expense items that not only have such a limited shelf life, but will surely demand replacement six or seven times over before the initial outlay (plus all the interest, of course) is paid off.

That fact exposes yet another tawdry element to all this: these computers are being procured off-budget today, but this act effectively commits the town to a perpetual budget hit of somewhere in the neighborhood of $800K annually to replace the third part of the computer supply that ages out of the three-year lease cycle each year. Everybody knows that it will be almost impossible politically to roll back the entitlement once it is in place – the entitlement peddlers always count on that.

On top of that, according to a March 7th report from Dennis Roche, the town’s Director of Technology, this proliferation of computers to every school kid (No Child Left Unbooted?) through this new entitlement program will necessitate the growth of an IT department to support them, which appears to be a staff of twelve people under the director, including a full-time support person in each middle school.

How do the middle schools play into this? And how do I come up with an $800K annual refresh cost for a three-year cycle on a $2M initial investment? Well, it turns out that this program has been being piloted in the middle schools’ 8th grade classrooms. The $2M buys laptops for 4 grade levels, but the program actually extends over 5 grade levels, bringing the total inventory cost to $2.5M, refreshed on a 3-year cycle. That’s assuming the 7th grade isn’t next at the feeding trough… And here again, a fact has come to light that exposes even more distinctly the tawdry character of this act.

The superintendent  and school committee began piloting this program in the 8th grade before the high school building project funds were authorized, but certainly after the project planning for the high school job was underway. Then they “found” the funds in building project contingency to saturate the high school level grades with computers procured off-budget, all but guaranteeing themselves a perpetual budget allocation to feed their beast. I don’t think I’d be going too far out on the limb of likelihood to suggest that they perhaps concocted this scheme from the beginning? That they got their way through chicanery can hardly be contested (the linked article calls it “creative ways,” but the point remains the same). And if the school building project runs into trouble and needs the contingency funds being diverted for iEducation?…

The risk plan, laid out plainly enough in the Dr. Sanchioni quote above, is the very embodiment of entitlementism: go back to the MSBA cash cow, and demand more. Now, I don’t know if the MSBA would actually do any such thing – my better self tells me that they would scoff both at the idea of scrapping the agreement they just completed with the town, and at the idea of including almost disposable but costly expense items in the funding for a capital project, and that Sanchioni probably knows that very well, and is just grandstanding to try to deflect taxpayer anger onto a higher level of government (a chronic ruse perpetuated by the less honorable among both the appointed and the elected), but my more cynical self tells me that the MSBA exists to spend taxpayer money, and may yet look favorably on the establishment of a new “essential” entitlement within its sphere of power.

And if that’s what ultimately happens, I can rest soundly, knowing that I will be paying for the laptops out of both my left pocket (state taxes) and my right pocket (municipal taxes), instead of just out of my right pocket. According to the folks like Dr. Sanchioni who sold the slumberous citizens of Natick this project to begin with, that’s like getting it for half price.