Computer hopes come unwired

City stumbles in bid to spread literacy

March 06, 2001|By Erika Niedowski and Tom Pelton | Erika Niedowski and Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Efforts to bridge the "digital divide" - the gap in computer literacy between the rich and poor - are stumbling over bureaucratic foul-ups, poor planning and other problems in Baltimore's schools and public housing.

More than 5,000 computers donated for city classrooms have been sitting in a warehouse for six months. The school district says it doesn't have the money to upgrade or install the machines, even though last year the city school board spent nearly $10 million it hadn't budgeted on a computer system for administrators.

And an "electronic village" touted in July 1999 as a national example of installing free computers in public housing is looking like handing out flashlights without bulbs or batteries.

Although the $1.7 million "e-village" program was billed as a way to link every rowhouse in the Terraces complex on Fremont Avenue to the Internet, three-quarters of the 203 units lack computers 20 months later.

Half of the 55 Dell personal computers that have been installed lack modems, and all of them lack printers - making it impossible for residents to use the computers to write resumes or school papers.

The Baltimore school system received 6,000 recycled computers from the Social Security Administration in September. It was a gift that officials praised because it was to move the district closer to its goal of providing one computer for every five students.

But technology chief Joseph Kirkman said recently that his department doesn't have the $2 million it will cost to upgrade the machines. Many arrived without monitors, software or operating systems.

"We ended up with 6,000 computers and no money to do the upgrade work," he said.

About 500 of the computers have had the necessary work and been distributed to six schools. Readying the remaining 5,500 will cost about $375 each, he said.

The problem is that the school system is in the midst of a spending freeze.

Officials carried over a $19.1 million deficit from last fiscal year, in part because the city school board approved spending nearly $10 million it hadn't budgeted on a much-criticized computer contract.

The contract with Information Control Systems Inc. was not to put computers in the classrooms, but rather to install several data management systems to allow administrators to track students, pay bills and issue paychecks. The cost of this project tripled, prompting both internal and outside audits.

School officials say they have made some progress toward preparing city students for the information age workplace. Workers have finished installing basic wiring at 26 schools, and wiring is under way at 83 more, Kirkman said.

Schools chief Carmen V. Russo also is moving forward with plans for a new technology magnet at Southern High School, to open in 2002.

To help move the SSA computers from the warehouse into classrooms, Mayor Martin O'Malley is asking for donations. He has teamed with the Maryland Business Roundtable and the Daily Record in running full-page ads that say: "Mayor O'Malley got 6,000 computers for kids. Will you do the rest?"

The problem at the Terraces public housing project, by contrast, has nothing to do with a lack of money.

The federal department of Housing and Urban Development is paying $1.7 million to create the "electronic village" at the site of a demolished public housing high-rise.

The goal, as announced by city officials in 1999, was to give all public housing residents computers in their apartments. This would allow them to use the Internet to search for jobs, start e-commerce businesses or complain to apartment managers about broken stoves or clogged toilets.

But today, only about a quarter of the residents have computers. And a program to allow residents to communicate with housing managers electronically hasn't started.

Jerry Griffin, chief operating officer of the NOAH Group Inc. of Silver Spring, which runs the program, has 13 Dell Optiplex GX100 personal computers piled up in boxes in his office, waiting to be distributed.

Stumbling blocks have included a refusal by HUD officials to give away computers, as the city originally proposed, fearing that residents would sell them for drugs or other illicit purposes, Griffin said. Another contractor has been late in installing modems and cables, Griffin said.

Some residents complain that they don't have the time or desire to take the two-week, 20-hour computer training course that HUD requires before residents can borrow the computers.

"Everybody was going to be given a computer - that was the original intent of the program," said Griffin. "But HUD had a problem with that. They didn't want them to be stolen. I thought that was a little presumptuous about the kind of people who live here."

Part of the program is working well. The NOAH Group opened a computer center called the Poe Power Plant in September 1999 that attracts 50 residents a week from both the Terraces and adjacent Poe Homes projects.

HUD spokeswoman Donna White said the contractors aren't being penalized because they appear to be working hard to solve the problems and install the computers as quickly as possible.

Some of the 55 residents who have completed the training course and received the computers say they're happy to be learning about the machines.

Standsberry Lee, a 38-year-old former bail bondsman who has been confined to a wheelchair since being shot in a 1986 domestic dispute, said he dreams of starting a home-based business using the computer, although he doesn't have Internet access or a printer.

"This is the first time I've ever used a computer, and I think it's great," said Lee. "I enjoyed taking the computer course. Once I get the Internet hooked up, the possibilities will be limitless."

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