After two weeks of negotiation, the County Council last night unanimously approved the release of $500,000 to the school board to pay for a pilot project for a sophisticated instructional computer network.
The council two weeks ago balked at releasing the money, worrying that not enough study had been done for a project of this scope.
By the time the $35 million Advanced School Automation Project (ASAP) is completed in five years, there will be at least one 32-computer lab in every county school, with additional specialized computer labs in the upper-grade levels.
The council also had questions about whether the first pieces of equipment will become obsolete by the time the entire system is installed, and whether it might not be a better idea to lease the equipment from a private company.
School officials came back to the council last night with several concessions that allayed most concerns. The most significant was to reduce the size of the pilot project from eight schools -- the entire Arundel High School feeder system -- to four schools.
The ASAP pilot will now be limited to Arundel High School, Arundel Middle School and two of three elementary schools: Crofton Meadows, Waugh Chapel and Odenton.
The elementary schools have not yet been selected, said Ronald L.Beckett, associate superintendent of schools.
"The rationale was they wanted to scale it back so we would have more money to do more things in the [pilot] schools," Mr. Beckett said after the vote. "It gives us a little more flexibility."
School officials also agreed to test several types of technology in the pilot schools so comparisons can be made before committing to any one system.
Superintendent Carol S. Parham also said that in order to ensure good communication between the Board of Education and the County Council, she would like to have a council member serve as a member of the Technology Committee that will evaluate the pilot program. If a council member can't serve, Dr. Parham said she would like to see a council liaison sit in on the meetings.
Council members had been highly critical of school officials at the last council meeting for not providing sufficient information to justify the release of the $500,000. Funding for the pilot had been approved last spring, but the money was held in a contingency fund until school officials returned to the council with a detailed plan.
Last night, council members still had questions before they released the money. Councilman George F. Bachman asked whether the Board of Education planned to cut its existing programs to pay for the computers in future budgets, or whether it expected the council to simply come up with more money.
"Certainly, I'd like to see some more monies as well," Dr. Parham said. "But certainly we'd have to look at reconfiguring our operating budget."
Councilman Carl G. "Dutch" Holland continued to press school officials to investigate leasing the equipment from a private firm. Dr. Parham replied that privatization of the computer network will be a major issue for the technology committee.
Councilwoman Diane Evans asked that the report evaluating the pilot be made available by mid-April to allow time for study before the budget session begins in May.
Also last night, the council approved a bill that allows county firefighters to retire after 20 years at half salary, as county police are allowed to do, instead of the current 25 years.
The meeting was the last for the current County Council, which will lose at least four members who are not running for re-election. Three of the four had to leave office because of the county's term-limit law. The next council will take office in December.