ASAP Can't Be Done ASAP

October 11, 1994

Plans for a new $53 million courthouse have been studied again and again. The proposed $27 million detention center has been the subject of even greater scrutiny. But the Board of Education is asking the County Council to give its blessing, virtually sight unseen, to a computer system that could cost taxpayers a whopping $35 million.

Last week the board asked the council to release $500,000 set aside during last May's budget hearings to start up a computer system called ASAP (Advanced School Automation Project). The board gave council members the proposal one hour before their meeting, couldn't answer questions about how it would work and glossed over why the price -- quoted at $17.5 million last May -- had suddenly almost doubled. Basically, they told the council, "Trust us. We know what we're doing."

The county schools do need a better computer system, both for students and the administration. Anne Arundel lags behind even smaller Maryland counties when it comes to computer technology. For that reason we encouraged the county to provide $500,000 to explore ASAP. The project, which would let students access libraries and international data bases, sounded worth pursuing. And at $17 million it looked like a relative bargain compared to ISIS, the $50 million computer system the school system wanted several years ago.

Now, however, it looks like ASAP may be just as big a boondoggle as ISIS. As a result of either stupidity or guile, the school board never told the council last spring that the initial cost estimate did not include the expense of physical renovations needed to install the computer labs. Now they tell us that ASAP not only will cost millions more, but that by the time the whole thing is installed in five years parts of it will be obsolete.

The council is looking at ASAP skeptically, as it should. It cannot let the school system commit to this without a lot more information. Frankly, we think it's becoming apparent that, given the speed with which computer technology becomes outdated, costly and sophisticated systems might not be the most sensible way to meet classroom computer needs. The school board needs to explore whether there are less expensive, more basic systems that could be installed quickly and still fulfill the goal of teaching students basic computer skills.

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