Education Funding

Used or Donated Computers Help Schools Save Money

By Ilyse Veron — February 04, 2011 6 min read
Tom Black, left, and Steve Ballard, of Delaware's Partners in Technology Program, load a truck in Dover with donated computers, which were being sent to schools in need of newer machines in the Red Clay Consolidated School District in Wilmington.

From Maine to California, states and school districts are getting creative in the way they negotiate economies of scale to secure and maintain new and used computers. Large donations can fill major gaps. But schools beware: The process of acquiring fleets of donated computers can be complex and confusing.

“You’ve got to have people whose heads are swiveling around looking for opportunities,” says Steve Ballard, who leads three ex-military men staffing Delaware’s Partners in Technology program. Par-Tech, as it is known, brings hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of donated computers annually to schools so they can reduce the number of computers they actually buy.

“Reuse has become a big thing,” Ballard says.

That’s, in part, because Delaware law requires local companies to offer schools technology they’re unloading onto the street. When Par-Tech learns of a computer giveaway at a business or government workplace, the Par-Tech officials scout out the offerings to search for the specific models that any of Delaware’s 19 districts have said they would want.

“Usually, it’s on the loading dock for 24 to 48 hours,” Ballard says of a load of discarded computers. “If you don’t move by that time, [the companies giving away the computers] won’t call you again.”

In 2009-10, the $344,000 state program netted Delaware schools nearly a million dollars worth of technology and related services, including $22,000 for repairs, $34,000 for training, and $727,000 for computers—all donated.


1. Opt for brand-name refurbished equipment so you can compare equipment specifications.

2. Ask how many computers of the same model the refurbisher can supply you per month.

3. Make sure that the software on refurbished computers is legal and comes with authentic licensing.

4. Check that your refurbisher has clearly stated policies about the failure rates of its equipment (under 10 percent is ideal), and whether the refurbisher complies with applicable environmental laws.

SOURCE: TechSoup Global

Experts say computer hardware, particularly on commercial-grade computers, can last for seven to 10 years, so Delaware maintains a 15,000-square-foot warehouse with technology stacked high until it is distributed to schools. Securing the computers is only the first step of managing reuse. The Par-Tech program’s four-person staff also cleans up, tests, stores, distributes, installs, and repairs the computers.

Sources of donated computers vary. On a November day, Par-Tech loaded up at the state education department warehouse and headed to the 15,000-student Red Clay school district office near Wilmington so Par-Tech workers could inventory 245 refurbished Dell desktop computers and Gateway laptops. Then they replaced 50 computers in two computer labs at Thomas McKean High School in the Red Clay district.

Another day, Par-Tech officials drove 170 miles for the 4,600-student Cape Henlopen school district to secure computers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency in West Virginia via a federal government donation program. And the Newark, Del.-based Avon cosmetics-distribution center once gave Par-Tech nearly new computers because Avon was shuttering its Delaware building and putting up a new facility in Ohio.

Even with careful research and testing, however, not everything goes perfectly. A couple of years ago, Par-Tech delivered 150 used Gateway desktop computers to a charter school, but had to replace them much too soon because of problems with the computer hard drives. Par-Tech’s rule of thumb for the usable life of a refurbished computer is about two years.

Computer-acquisition experts say districts, before obtaining used computers, need to make sure the seller or provider will remove, repair, or swap out bad “apples,” or PCs, as the case may be.

Doug Levin, the executive director of the Glen Burnie, Md.-based State Educational Technology Directors Association, or SETDA, cautions that sometimes a donation, though free at the outset, will incur significant costs over time. Donated computers can “create a lot of headaches” for school staff members if there’s no outside support to get them fixed, he says.

New vs. Used

Far north of Delaware, the Maine Learning Technology Initiative’s Jeff Mao favors new computers over refurbished ones. And he has some serious negotiating power because he buys about 70,000 Apples at once—MLTI runs the largest state laptop deployment for schools nationwide.

Bob Smith, a computer-support specialist for Delaware's Partners in Technology Program, carries donated computer equipment into William Penn High School in New Castle.

Mao, the director of learning-technology policy for Maine’s department of education, contends that his schools get what they want because he doesn’t specify Apple, Linux, or PC systems. Instead MLTI puts out a request for proposals seeking technology solutions. The RFP seeks computers with tools and multimedia functionality to support learning outcomes such as reading, writing, research, data analysis, and problem-solving.

For years, Maine has been securing from Apple Inc. a deal on new laptops that ensures daily access to a computer for every public middle school student. The program now includes 353 schools—100 percent of Maine public middle schools and 55 percent of public high schools, some including 7th and 8th graders who would typically be in middle school. It provides computers for 61,000 students and 11,000 teachers.

When MLTI sought to expand the program from middle schools to high schools, the iBook had evolved to the MacBook. So MLTI “pushed and pulled to get a better price,” says Mao. It is $242 per year per pupil for four years. The MacBook deal includes a four-year warranty, battery protection, and an in-state technical-support staff—provided by Apple—that now includes an engineer, a project manager, and an education specialist plus about 10 other people to provide technical, logistical, and network support, as well as software and professional development. Apple now ships computers to some 300 Maine locations.

Maximizing Negotiating Power

Meanwhile, at the district level, many school systems already maximize their negotiating power by buying big numbers of computers and storing them in warehouses or unused classrooms rather than buying as needed and intermittently throughout the year. Districts debate whether to buy new from a manufacturer, to buy used from a dealer, or to rely on students’ families to provide technology resources to their children.

Just as with used cars, used computers are sold in many ways. At CDI Computers, based in Markham, Ontario, Director of Operations Erez Pikar describes the two-part process he offers to U.S. and Canadian schools: Refurbishment, the first part, includes complete testing, cleaning, fixing, and sometimes painting the equipment. Recertification, the second part, includes stress testing, configuration, and quality-control steps.

Pikar says schools can bring a 6-to-1 student-to-computer ratio down to 2-to-1 by buying his lower-priced recertified computers. Barring a “major sea change in budgeting,” Pikar predicts U.S. and Canadian schools are at least five years away from utilizing computers all day and adopting digital textbooks. However, he asserts that recertified computers like the Dell OptiPlex 745 and others can handle digital textbooks and other types of higher-end multimedia.

From where Jahad Suboh works as the director for information systems for the Earlimart school district in California’s San Joaquin Valley, he is not in a position to change his K-8 district’s student-to-computer ratio, which is as high as 6-to-1 in grades 3-8. The 2,000-student district needs to focus on meeting federal learning standards, among other priorities, so acquisition of new technologies is not a high priority, says Suboh.

When Suboh wanted to replace computers purchased about eight years ago and get some laptops for teachers, CDI offered him a better deal than a deal for new computers Dell was offering, including a set of monitors and recertified Dell OptiPlex 745 computer-processing units with a small desktop footprint. CDI also provided trial units to test out a week after the purchase.

To former high school teacher Jim Lynch at San Francisco’s TechSoup Global, a nonprofit group working to find community-driven technology solutions to social problems, computer reuse by districts lacking cash is a smart choice.

“Good-quality, warranteed, refurbished computers are a reasonable option for districts that have undergone IT budget cuts,” says Lynch, the recycling and reuse director for TechSoup Global. In addition to CDI, he recommends dealers such as Redemtech in Columbus, Ohio, PC Rebuilders & Recyclers in Chicago, and TKO Electronics in Westlake Village, Calif.

“Schools can get at least double the number of computers that they need,” Lynch says.

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