Technicians at North County High School dismantled the school's computer lab in the spring to prepare for a shipment of 90 new machines, the result of an ambitious effort to put thousands of new computers into county schools.
But North County High never got its badly needed computers because of a contract dispute that has put the program, Technology Refresh, in limbo while two computer suppliers battle over which should be awarded the job.
The legal fight forced schools that had been counting on the computers to find additional machines in the weeks before school opened. It also means that computers labs have been put on hold and that students must share computers in classes where they were meant to have their own.
North County High was able to secure older computers that had been declared surplus by the federal government, and area community groups made donations.
"Obviously, we had to make some significant adjustments to spread them through the school so that teachers and students can take part in computer labs," Principal Patricia Gronkiewicz said.
"We're hopeful that the litigation will end shortly," she said. "It's unfortunate that the kids and teachers are the ones affected."
Under the Technology Refresh program, 4,000 computers were to have been installed in middle and high school classrooms during the summer. Schools with the fewest computers were scheduled for the first deliveries.
When it became apparent that the contract dispute would not be resolved before school started, school officials decided to buy 125 computers deemed critical for instructional purposes, said Judy Mauriello, coordinator of structional technology with county schools.
Of those, 63 are being used for a new science course at five high schools and for a technology literacy course at some middle schools, Mauriello said. The other computers are for administrative purposes, keeping track of student attendance and grades.
"They're making do, going back and reusing the older computers," she said. "We were hoping to have a stronger impact on instruction, and it won't happen until we get the program going."
Based on the pace of the contract dispute, school officials have said Technology Refresh won't be back on track until January at the earliest.
"We're holding our breath and hoping," said Joan Donovan, director of technology and information services with the county schools.
"I am getting a little nervous that it might take longer than anticipated," she said.
In the works for the past two years, Technology Refresh calls for the school system to lease 12,000 computers over the next three years, with yearly deliveries of 4,000.
The problem with the Technology Refresh contract began in March, when ISmart, the company that submitted the low bid of $23.8 million on the project, protested award of the job to GTSI, which had bid $1.2 million more.
ISmart argues that under Maryland's education procurement law, the job must go to the low bidder.
ISmart's complaint prompted the county school board to order rebidding, over the objections of the school system staff and Superintendent Carol S. Parham, who had recommended awarding the contract to GTSI, based on the evaluations of a technology review committee.
In July, GTSI appealed the county school board's rebid decision to the State Board of Education. GTSI maintains that cost is not the only determining factor in the purchase of information technology services. According to the appeal, school systems may consider other factors, such as technical expertise, when buying computers and related services.
The state board is scheduled to discuss the appeal in executive session at its meeting today or tomorrow, said Ronald A. Peiffer, an assistant superintendent with the State Department of Education. If the board reaches a decision, he said, it probably won't issue a ruling until next month's meeting.
Until the dispute is settled, Cathy Polk, a computer lab technician at Southern High School, said she'll work with what she has.
"We have 1,500 kids and 32 computers, and they're not working all the time," said Polk, who noted that three of the computers are broken. Southern High was to receive 70 computers before school started, Polk said. When the machines finally arrive, she said, each classroom will have a computer.