The schools' computer crisis

May 27, 1994

There's a word for the Anne Arundel school system's computer network: pitiful. In the classroom, one finds a mish-mash of terminals, none of them tied to a central system; much of the equipment is old and obsolete. At school headquarters, most records, statistics and other administrative data are not computerized at all. It often takes school officials days to retrieve one piece of information. The surrounding counties, even much smaller Carroll County, are all ahead of Anne Arundel.

So County Executive Robert R. Neall did the right thing by including in his supplemental budget $500,000 in start-up money for a new computer system, appropriately called ASAP. As described by officials, ASAP (Advanced School Automation Project) would provide a computer lab in each of the 108 schools. The terminals would be linked to each other and to a mainframe computer at school headquarters; students would have access to everything from libraries to international data bases. Administrators could computerize mountains of material now being filed disjointedly.

This is not only the computer age, however, but also the age of property-tax caps and no-frills government. ASAP is expected to cost $17.5 million over five years. During that period, the full effect of the tax cap will be felt. Where is money for such a huge investment to be found? This year's budget is so tight that county government could not come up with the full $1.6 million in seed money the Board of Education requested.

Some council members remain wary of ASAP. That's understandable because the last computer program the schools wanted three years ago, ISIS, carried a ridiculous $50 million price tag and had limited instructional value. But even if research shows ASAP is not as good as it sounds, the county is going to have to invest in some computer system. It is a necessity, like textbooks. If the county is going to adequately prepare children for life in the 21st century, it has to help them become computer-literate.

ASAP looks worthwhile to pursue at this point. Educators and parents have to realize, however, that if the county funds the rest of the program over the next five years, they will have to sacrifice or wait for something else. Having it all is not possible in these days of tax caps and tight budgets.

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