Classroom Technology

Districts Weigh Costs of Replacing Computers

By Michelle R. Davis — December 16, 2009 4 min read
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At Westside Community Schools in Omaha, Neb., Director of Information Technology Kent J. Kingston keeps the computers humming by staying on a strict cycle of replacement and recycling.

Despite the struggling economy and an effort by many school districts to cut costs and lengthen the time between hardware updates, Kingston says he’s been able to convince leaders in his 6,000-student district of the importance of replacing and upgrading computer equipment, a practice often called “refreshing.”

“I tried to get the board to look at refreshing computers much like the water [running through pipes] in the walls, or power,” he says. “It’s just like paying the gas bill or the water bill or fixing the roofs.”

BRIC ARCHIVE

Even though Westside and other districts have managed to stick to their regular refresh cycles, many districts are lengthening such cycles in an effort to get more time out of their technology and delay new spending. While some technology administrators say such cost-control measures are a necessity right now, others, like Kingston, counter that there comes a point when older equipment costs a district more—in upkeep, staff resources, and user downtime—than new purchases and upgrades.

“You need to look at the total cost of ownership,” says Richard S. Kaestner, the project director for an initiative on that topic at the Washington-based Consortium for School Networking, or CoSN. “Slowing down the refresh cycle may look good on paper, but does it solve the problem? The answer is, it’s not a great solution if you look at support costs and from the perspective of the end user.”

‘Pushing the Limits’

Kingston says that in his Omaha district, each teacher has a Macintosh notebook computer, and a one-to-one-computing initiative is serving grades 8-12, which means each student also has a school laptop that he or she can use at school and at home. The district has about 2,600 laptops for the initiative.

Every three years, the teachers and students in the one-to-one program get new laptops. “We started to see that with teachers and the high school students, by the end of the third year we were pushing the limits in terms of ram and processing speed and what they could and couldn’t do with software,” says Kingston.

To purchase the new machines, the district opted for a lease-to-own program that has it paying about $1.3 million per year for the models over three years, he says.

But that isn’t the end of those machines, he says. Those that still appear to be working well are used in the elementary grades. “In elementary school,” he says, “they’re doing word processing, Excel spreadsheets; they’re not doing the high-end things that put a lot of stress on the machine.”

The less usable computers are put on the shelf for when the Westside district’s technology team needs to harvest parts.

Other districts are feeling more strapped.

Mark Westhoff, the director of technology for the Lincolnshire-Prairie View district in a northern suburb of Chicago, says financial constraints have forced his district to extend the computer-refresh cycle. He says the district is in the middle of a three-year lease on the current batch of equipment, but when that lease runs out, “if the computers are still working and the applications we need are still running on them, even if we have the money we’re not going to refresh. That wouldn’t make sense.”

Previously, the district’s refresh cycle was three years, but Westhoff says he believes it may extend to five for the 700 or so laptops and desktops in the 1,700-student district.

“School districts do what they have to do,” he says. “If we don’t have the money to buy new equipment, we’ll do the best we can to make the older equipment work.”

Last time the K-8 district refreshed about 300 computers the cost was $122,000 per year for three years, he says.

Creative Tactics

But Kaestner of CoSN says districts shouldn’t take that idea too far. “When you’re trying to support new operating systems and integrate them with new and old networks, you have to train people on both systems, which creates system issues and training issues,” which can add additional costs, he says.

Kaestner says most districts have some type of refresh cycle in place, and even during tough economic times should try to stick with the schedule they’ve outlined.

“If they skip this year, they’re not going to buy twice as many computers next time,” he says. “They’re going to be playing from behind.”

Sometimes, districts come up with creative tactics for refreshing their equipment.

In the 57,000-student Boston public schools, where there are about 20,000 instructional computers and little money to upgrade outdated hardware. Chief Information Officer Kim A. Rice cobbled together “Project Refresh.” The initiative allows the district to partner with companies such as Blue Cross Blue Shield to receive their 2- or 3-year-old PCs. The goal is to have all computers in the district be under 5 years old.

“Some people think I’m crazy to accept gently used machines,” Rice says, adding that getting all those computers in working order can be a “maintenance nightmare.” But she points out that “the intent is not to have a fleet of computers all alike, but to get 20,000 functional computers that kids can bang away on and use all day.”

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