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Published in Print: April 11, 2001, as San Francisco Schools Scrap Plan, Pass Up E-Rate Money

San Francisco Schools Scrap Plan, Pass Up E-Rate Money

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The San Francisco schools are shelving a multimillion-dollar plan to outfit classrooms with a souped-up telecommunications network, even though that means turning down up to $50 million in federal support for the project this year.

The money commitment made last spring by the federal government's E-rate program, which gives schools discounts financed by telephone ratepayers, would cover 83 percent of the cost of the telecommunications services and equipment.

But the 60,000-student district would have to chip in between $7 million and $9 million, and district officials say they would have another $9 million in related expenses—money that Superintendent Arlene Ackerman said the district just doesn't have.

What's more, she contended in an interview last week, the proposed telecommunications system is a grandiose and unaffordable scheme that a hired consultant cut-and-pasted from a plan for the Los Angeles schools. The plan, she said, had almost no input from the San Francisco district's instructional and technology staffs.

"I've never worked in a district where the development of a grant and submission of a grant was done outside of bringing in [information technology] people and educational people, and without the district's needs being considered," said Ms. Ackerman, who arrived in San Francisco last August after serving most recently as the superintendent of the District of Columbia schools.

But Tim Tronson, the consultant, responded that Ms. Ackerman was not being candid. He maintained that she is criticizing a needed project to mask her decision to spend on other priorities instead.

On Ms. Ackerman's recommendation, the school board did not renew Mr. Tronson's $1,000-a-day contract last summer.

"The money is there," Mr. Tronson said. "When the new superintendent came to the district, she gave almost 14 percent pay raises."

Mr. Tronson drew up the plans for the project and the district's applications for E-rate funds in 1999, at the request of Linda Davis, who served as San Francisco's interim superintendent from that year until Ms. Ackerman arrived.

Members of the technology and instructional staffs were involved in developing the project, he said. But he suggested that the technology department was "nonfunctional" at the time, and that instructional employees have since withdrawn their support or been replaced under the new schools chief.

The E-rate applications for the project show the signature of Desmond McQuoid, a district custodial supervisor who, according to Mr. Tronson, has experience in setting up computer networks and who helped develop the project. Mr. McQuoid is listed as "director," without specifying a department, on the applications; he did not respond to a request for comment through the district's communications department.

Serious Flaws?

Over Mr. McQuoid's signature, the applications state that "a sufficient quantity of computers has been purchased; and/or is being sought." The documents make similar claims about the district's having adequate resources for providing maintenance and staff training for the project.

But district officials said last week that there was no plan to acquire the computers that would be needed to make full use of the network, which would shuttle audio, video, and data throughout the district and over the Internet at blistering speeds.

"We don't have enough computers to use the Internet connections we have now," said Jill Wynns, the president of the school board.

The E-rate project had other serious flaws, district officials said. For example, it would have placed 30 computer outlets in every classroom in 46 schools, even though the state recommends that classrooms have only four to six computers. In addition, the classrooms in many of the schools on that list have only 20 students per room.

Mr. Tronson replied that the project allowed for fewer computer outlets to be installed, and that the outlets were a minor part of the cost. He also said that the two companies that received the contract for the project had promised to donate 100 computers to each of the 46 schools, which serve the city's poorest communities.

But Ms. Wynns was scathing about the project. "If somebody wanted to give me the money, would I take this grant? I don't think so," she said.

Ms. Ackerman said the district would ask federal E-rate officials if it can submit a revised plan. She said the district had about $2.5 million to contribute, which in theory could be matched by about $12 million in discounts for the program year ending in June.

E-rate officials in Washington said a scaled-down version of the plan might be permitted.

Vol. 20, Issue 30, Page 12

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