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Computer Donations Pose Dilemma for Educators

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One person's junk is another person's gem. But sometimes, free is too expensive.

Both rules apply when school districts accept donations of used computer equipment.

School officials in Mariposa County, Calif., for example, were only too happy last month to receive 418 castoff PCs from the Pacific Bell phone company through a program organized by the San Diego-based Detwiler Foundation.

Mariposa High School's share of that bounty--41 computers with Pentium processors--will be doorways to the World Wide Web for the school's 700 students, said Thomas L. Brownell, the assistant principal. Most of the other computers, with older 486 and 386 processors, will run word processing and educational software at the 3,000-student district's 12 other schools, which also received a few Pentiums.

But in Union City, Calif., administrators turn away most used computer equipment.

"We accept only 5 percent of what's offered," said Roger Hoyer, the assistant superintendent for technology for the 14,000-student district. Older machines have higher maintenance costs and often are incompatible with district networks and software, he said.

Deciding whether to accept computer donations is likely to become a more common dilemma for educators. Companies and government agencies across the nation report plans to replace thousands of computers and related equipment over the next couple of years with the latest models. Much of the older equipment will be offered to schools.

"The time is ripe for computer recycling," said Darla F. Strouse, the director of business partnerships at the Maryland Department of Education. "At the same time, it is important that there be a reason for it and [that the use of older computers be] included in a school's plan."

Cheaper To Donate

Companies, which often are competitively driven to have computers of the latest generation, give their castoffs to schools for both altruistic and business reasons.

"On the one hand, you have benevolence of the corporation to donate to schools," said Kurt Johnson, the president of Horizon Technology of Laguna Hills, Calif., a computer-recycling company. "On the other hand, there's the bottom line. A lot of technology is fully depreciated on their books--it has zero value, so there's no incentive to keep it."

The resale value is slight, he said. A working 386 computer, without a monitor, has a "street value" of only $25; a basic 486 is worth $100. And giving the equipment away saves companies the cost of warehousing or dumping it.

Beginning this month, donors have another financial incentive. A federal tax break passed in the Tax Relief Act of 1997 lets anyone write off a portion of the value of a computer that is two years old or newer and is donated to a school.

A number of states have, or are weighing, similar tax breaks.

Tax breaks add fuel to the charge that recycling programs soak up public funds that would be better spent on new equipment, training, and other essentials of good technology use.

"Giving companies tax breaks for donations is unconscionable," argued Cheryl Williams, the director of the Institute for the Transfer of Technology to Education at the National School Boards Association, based in Alexandria, Va. "The companies are going to have to pay to dump those things."

Some states, including California and Minnesota, have directed state funds to buy spare parts or provide other support for recycling programs. Federal Goals 2000 money and the U.S. Department of Education's Technology Literacy Challenge Fund grants also have been used for that purpose.

Federal Giveaways

In addition to businesses, the federal government is also directing a stream of old computers toward schools.

Under an executive order signed by President Clinton in March 1996, all federal agencies must have a donation program. Agencies may choose the recipients of their "excessed" equipment but must give preference to nonprofit schools and educational organizations in the federal "empowerment zones" and "enterprise communities," which are urban centers with high poverty and unemployment rates.

The federal government gave away an estimated 100,000 PCs and related items during the 1997 fiscal year, said Martha Caswell, the director of personal property management, in the policy division at the U.S. General Services Administration.

The government launched a Web site last fall to consolidate and publicize requests for federal computers from schools and nonprofit organizations. The address is www.computers.fed.gov/. So far, several hundred schools have posted requests, which will be considered by all federal agencies.

Computers released from government service are generally older than corporate discards; the government sent schools a lot of 286s last year, Ms. Seller said.

But recipients can enlist computer recyclers to upgrade the machines, and agencies can allow staff members to give technical help. The military and several trucking companies have volunteered to transport the computers free of charge from federal agencies to classrooms.

And some newer machines may be on tap soon, Mr. DeGuzman said. "When the Pentium II [microchip] becomes the government's low-end standard, there's going to be a whole slew of Pentium I's [that are retired]. This year and next year, the Pentium IIs are coming in hot and heavy."

A Temporary Fix

Schools' experiences with donated computers "have been up and down," Ms. Williams of the NSBA said. "Everything is in the implementation."

Education technology experts say a school should consider accepting used computers only if they are compatible with its technology plan, if the school can get adequate software that works on the machines, and if it has a way to keep them up and running.

Some donation programs give a replacement guarantee for their computers.

A school should be cautious if it is required to put up money for the computers, experts say. Some foundations expect nothing at all, although those might provide computers that are not extensively upgraded.

The experts also caution that hardware and software are only a portion of the cost of using technology well; schools will also need an equal investment in staff training and ongoing upgrades.

Of course, where school leaders stand on the issue of accepting used computers depends greatly on where they sit. California's Mariposa County district, which welcomed its recent donation from Pacific Bell, struggles financially. The state's Union City schools, meanwhile, can be choosier because they have more money and have been investing in technology for many years.

Stephen Colvard, the principal of San Cayetano School in Fillmore, Calif., said the 20 computers that his isolated, rural elementary school received from the Detwiler Foundation last year were distributed among classrooms, replacing archaic Apple IIe machines that were not worth repairing.

The Detwiler machines came with outdated software and can't access the Internet. Critics of the foundation's program have complained about the age of some of the equipment it provides.

But for now, the machines it donated to San Cayetano "are very much appreciated," Mr. Colvard said. "Kids can do word processing, write stories, play a few games to learn how to use the mouse," he said. "It was a very popular thing for this to happen."

But while Mr. Colvard said he didn't want to appear ungrateful, he added that the computers have limited capacity and that he would not spend money to upgrade or repair them.

"We said, 'Let them be the best they can be,'" Mr. Colvard said. "They'll be a Band-Aid for a while," until new grants permit the purchase of newer models.

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