Balto. County schools step firmly into electronic age

Board members receive laptop computers

January 29, 2001|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

They've got new laptops. Now, some Baltimore County Board of Education members need to know how to turn them on.

Dell computers were delivered to all 12 board members last week. They were to begin learning to use them Saturday, at the first of several training sessions.

The laptop purchase -- which cost about $36,000, excluding training sessions -- is part of Superintendent Joe A. Hairston's push to get the district to a point where classroom data can be shared quickly and easily without wasting paper.

But the push to go paperless, and the expense, have raised a few questions. Parents worry that if the school board members go online to communicate and get all their information, the public might be left out.

"I guess [board members] are going to be real efficient," said County Councilman Joseph Bartenfelder, a Fullerton Democrat. "I hope they help [board members] communicate, because a lot of the PTA people I talk to don't think [board members] communicate with them enough." Council members are not issued laptops.

Visiting the school board's meeting room at district headquarters in Towson recently, Bartenfelder marveled at the board's high-tech trappings, including mini-television monitors at each member's seat. "It's first-class," he said.

Hairston began a technology buying spree in the fall with an $11 million order for 6,000 classroom computers. He has proposed spending $10 million next year to give a computer to every teacher.

Even board members who have PCs at home or the office received laptops. Some say they'll use the laptops to review staff reports during meetings, or take them along when they visit school campuses or travel to education conventions.

But not all members will be comfortable with the laptops right away. Some will need extensive training.

Board member John A. Hayden said he will use his laptop to "dial-up" and "download" the superintendent's weekly letter as well as staff reports. In the past, dense packets of information were sent to him by courier or even school bus, he said.

"When it's really important, I sometimes receive packets from the Stoneleigh Elementary School bus driver," said Hayden, laughing. "In the future, we can avoid the necessity of doing that sort of thing."

Board member Sanford V. Teplitzky, who initially said he wouldn't accept a laptop if he was going to use it only to send and receive e-mails, will take one after all.

"I'm very sensitive to the issue, and I wanted to make sure the money we used to buy the laptops would be well spent," said Teplitzky. "I am convinced the use of the laptop will assist me in what I do as a board member."

Deputy Superintendent Christine M. Johns said she wasn't sure whether the cost to install and maintain additional telephone lines at board members' homes would be covered by the school system.

Although parents are encouraged by the school board's move to eliminate waste, they say they want paper copies of staff reports and classroom data because not everyone has access to a computer. They said the laptops might make board members' jobs easier.

"They do travel around the county a lot, and I know that if I had a laptop I would use it all the time," said Laura Nossel, president of the PTA Council of Baltimore County. "It will be another avenue that they will have to connect with the public. If they have [public] e-mail addresses, people can contact them directly with concerns."

In response to a general concern that sending messages by e-mail could be abused by board members who make policy decisions, Meg O'Hare, chairwoman of the Northeast Area Educational Advisory Council, said: "They decide everything behind closed doors anyway, just like the County Council."

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