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School board explores new ways to pay for iPads

Rochester school district leaders are exploring ways to fund a one-to-one iPad initiative across the district without raising taxes on property owners.

That was the directive given to district leaders by the Rochester School Board on Tuesday after a wide-ranging discussion about the district's three-year, $10 million proposal to provide every Rochester student with access to an iPad tablet.

Tuesday's meeting was a study session so board members didn't vote, but it was their first chance to publicly air their views about a tech plan unveiled two weeks ago by Superintendent Michael Muñoz that would make Rochester the biggest district in the state to implement such an initiative.

All of the board members said they favor the idea of providing an iPad to every student over three years starting in 2013, but a couple of board members voiced concern over the lack of hard, local data showing that such a program would boost student achievement. Board member Anne Becker advocated a slower roll-out until such evidence is available.

"I would not feel guilty at all saying, 'Look, we need to do this because education is so important for our kids.' But before we can say that, I need us as a district to have the research done," Becker said. "For me to say, 'Yes, I'm going to raise your taxes,' I have to have data behind it to support this."


Muñoz made clear during Tuesday's four-hour meeting that he was betting his superintendency on the outcome. He highlighted national research that shows the success of one-to-one programs, from higher test scores and graduation rates to greater student engagement to more productive workers. He said he is confident the same could happen here.

"I would not sit here at this table and ask for $7 million for something that I didn't think was going to get us our outcomes, because I'm thinking of my future as a superintendent," Muñoz said. "You spend $7 million dollars and you don't get the outcomes that you want, I'm looking for a new job. This recommendation isn't coming without a lot of consideration and research and really thinking this is the right thing to do."

The district began a pilot project at Longfellow Elementary this spring, providing all first- and second-graders with an iPad, to generate local data on a one-to-one program. While Longfellow educators enthusiastically endorsed the program and said it invigorated student learning and teaching, they say it is too early to link specific outcomes to the project.

One of the proposals put forward by the district seeks levy authority to purchase 10,000 iPads and another 5,000 tablets through grants and donations. The district would offset the cost by reducing its tax levy for major maintenance, specifically by financing more renovation and building projects through bonding rather than pay-as-you-go financing.

While that wouldn't completely offset the higher costs, district leaders say the impact on property owners would be minimal. For example, a homeowner with property valued at $100,000 would pay an additional $4 in taxes for the initiative.

Some board members, such as Dan O'Neil, inquired whether the district could relocate resources so that district taxpayers would see no increase in school taxes.

That prompted a statement of frustration from board member Jim Pittenger over the board's "mixed message." On the one hand, board members talk about wanting to redesign education, "to think outside the box, to find ways to do things differently." On the other hand, the board refuses to pay for it.

"I don't like the idea of raising taxes," Pittenger said. "But I'm just frustrated by that mixed message of, 'We really need to do something different. We really need to do something better, but it can't cost anything.'"

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