Fate of Satellite-Receiving Gear at Issue in Star Schools Flap

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A handful of school districts in Montana are at loggerheads with a provider of distance-learning programs over whether they must return the satellite-receiving equipment they received under the terms of a federal grant if they choose to drop out of the program.

The dispute centers on programs offered by Educational Service District 101 in Spokane, Wash. The service district is part of a five-state consortium that was awarded federal Star Schools grants in 1990 and 1991.

The districts contend that the fees for the programs are higher than they expected to pay--or their budgets can support. They also say that they understood when they applied to join the matching-grant program that they would own the equipment after they had participated in Star Schools for the required two years.

The brainchild of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., Star Schools funds pilot programs that use technology to deliver mathematics and language courses, primarily to poor and rural school districts. Often, these efforts use satellite broadcasts to deliver programming.

More than 70 Montana districts are enrolled in the Star Schools program through the consortium that includes the education departments of Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington.

Ten of those districts say that, because of financial difficulties, they can no longer afford the programs provided by the Washington member of the consortium, not all of which are Star Schools related. They also contend that similar programs are available much cheaper, or even free, elsewhere.

"Montana schools are having severe financial problems, and some of their schools have written to tell us they just don't have money,'' said Steve Witter, a spokesman for the Spokane service district.

However, while the consortium's governing board is sensitive to the districts' problems, the equipment distributed under the Star Schools program cannot be turned over to them, Mr. Witter said.

"It's just a case of having to sit down with these districts and hear their complaints,'' he added.

Seeking Clarification

Officials of the affected districts, meanwhile, have asked Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., to obtain a clarification of the program's rules from the U.S. Education Department, which administers the program through its office of educational research and improvement.

Mr. Burns has received one reply from the department, but "he has not received an adequate explanation of what can be done with the equipment,'' Bryce Dustman, a spokesman for the Senator, said last week.

A spokeswoman for the Education Department, meanwhile, reiterated comments made by Emerson J. Elliot, the acting assistant secretary for educational research and improvement, in his letter to Senator Burns that federal regulations allow the consortium to establish the rules for the use of the equipment.

In the meantime, the districts have three options: They can buy the equipment that already is installed, continue to pay the annual fees and receive the programming, or have the equipment removed.

Penny Bertelsen, the superintendent of the Sun River Valley School District in Sims, Mont., who helped write the district's Star Schools application, said she was told by state education department officials that the district was buying the equipment with its contribution to the matching-grant program.

She said that the 500-student district, which has difficulty raising its annual operating revenues of $1.8 million, would find it difficult to pay the $4,700 it will take to stay in the Star Schools program for a second year, but that it is willing to do so to meet its obligations.

The district, however, is unwilling to continue to buy services after that simply to keep the equipment, she said.

Vol. 12, Issue 30

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