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Grosse Pointes

January 28, 2014

Tech bond proposal draws support, criticism

By April Lehmbeck
C & G Staff Writer

GROSSE POINTES — The community members involved in the groups supporting or opposing the upcoming Grosse Pointe Public School System technology bond have something pretty big in common.

They both say they support technology, that the district is in need of upgrades, and they want to see the district and its students thrive. The chasm that separates them, however, is how to reach those goals.

“I want to thank the board for recognizing the severity of the technology deficits in our schools and setting out to do something about it to bring our district into the 21st century,” said Laura Monahan with GP Tech Yes. She called the bond proposal “the best, most responsible use of taxpayer money with the goal of bringing our schools back to the competitive standards that we can once again be proud of.”

That bond proposal is an approximately $50 million bond to fund a major infrastructure upgrade, security improvements and new technology, including a one-device-to-one-student component.

George McMullen, who attended all of the committee meetings and board meetings about the tech bond and is part of GP Tech Yes, said the tech bond was researched with an independent consulting firm validating the plan. The independent firm proposed a higher amount, but the school board cut out the energy-efficiency upgrades to lower the price.

As of early this week, GP Tech Yes has a list of names for more than 150 endorsements on its website, gptechyes.org, from PTO organizations to parents and community members.

The other group making its voice heard in the community, Residents for Responsible Spending, says it’s a grassroots effort that’s been running for the last couple of weeks. It’s a group that was sparked to action after reading former board member Brendan Walsh’s blog posts about the tech bond.

Walsh is one of those in the community with concerns about the size and scope of the proposal.

“My single biggest concern is the size of the request combined with no plan to wean the district off of the tax increase,” Walsh said, saying that components like technology devices have a short lifespan, so the district is creating an ongoing cost.

“I think anytime you ask taxpayers for a 23 percent increase with no plan to reduce or eliminate it, yeah, I am concerned,” Walsh said.

He said he would be on board with a plan for no more than a mill without the need to go back to the voters for additional dollars down the line.

Residents for Responsible Spending members agreed.

“This is going to become a forever tax, the way it’s structured now,” Mickey Shield said.

She believes there are other possibilities for getting more technology into the hands of the students without burdening the taxpayer with a $50 million bond.

Residents for Responsible Spending have issues with other parts of the proposal, including the nontechnology components like paint, carpeting and security doors that they don’t believe will improve security.

School board Trustee Cindy Pangborn, who has grandchildren in the district, said that the current doors have security measures and that the windows in the schools are open during warm months of the year.

“I wish I could draw, because this would be an award-winning political cartoon of the shiny door and 40 people coming into the windows,” Pangborn said.

“That door is not buying your kids security,” she said, saying they don’t have a security plan and questioning why is this coming up now and not previously.

Residents for Responsible Spending took issue with statements about preventing situations like Sandy Hook or Columbine, calling them scare tactics.

Several of those aligned with Residents for Responsible Spending’s stance voiced their issues with the tech bond Jan. 27.

Walsh and the coordinators of the Residents for Responsible Spending campaign said they would support a smaller technology bond issue if it were a well-thought-out plan. The group has created a website at gpresponsiblespending.com.

“We are proponents of technology,” Shield said. “We just don’t think this is the way to go about it.”

She believes there are better, more fiscally responsible ways to get what the students need.

“It doesn’t seem that they’ve really explored all options,” Shield said.

Walsh is joined by others in the Residents for Responsible Spending camp who think the best course of action is to head back to the drawing board.

Pangborn said she consulted with technology professionals and believes the bond is excessive. She was in favor of splitting the bond into two proposals.

Pangborn wanted more information on the possibility of leasing devices for students, instead of buying, and more use of cloud technology.

“I see us building a dinosaur,” she said. “We are asking for money based on old technology.

“It’s our responsibility to bring out our best work and present that to the community,” she said. “In my opinion, this is not our best work, and that’s why I voted no.”

As for the independent study, Pangborn believes it was a wish list. She said it was not based on data, but based on conversations.

Residents for Responsible Spending have a lot of questions, like how the district will pay for extra staff to manage the new technology and tackle other ongoing costs.

Kelly Boll, with Residents for Responsible Spending, has concerns about giving an iPad or other device to everyone in third through 12th grade. She raised concerns that taxpayers on fixed incomes would be forced to pay for devices for personal use, and about the safety of children walking to and from school. She wanted to know about parent surveys to see what parents feel about this plan.

“This model is fraught with problems,” she said.

“I think the board has put the voter in a losing situation by lumping together the financing of critical important technology upgrades, which many of us acknowledge as necessary, with the financing of additional items, many of them not technology items, in this one $50 million bond,” Boll added.

Residents for Responsible Spending also want the tech bond put on a November ballot instead of a special election, which historically draws lower voter turnout.

Board members, however, are supporting their decision on this plan, which was hammered out over months of talks with a technology committee and then at the board table.

“I do think that if we want to move to 21st century educational methods, this is the best way to do that,” Treasurer Brian Summerfield said.

Gafa agreed, saying that the district put the work in. She refuted the claim by Pangborn about the security plan. 

“I know a security plan is in place. I know a security review is done,” Gafa said.

District officials also have talked of the need for more security measures.   

“I put a lot of time and effort into asking questions, reviewing things, talking over different proposals,” Gafa said.

She addressed the question of the cloud.

“We do currently use cloud computing. That was made perfectly clear,” she said.

“I feel after much time that I spent asking questions, reviewing things, that this is the best proposal, and I didn’t just say I want a blank check, and I am going to hold the administration responsible for every piece that gets bid out,” Gafa said.

Board Vice President Dan Roeske also believes that this is the right approach.

“The committee did do its job,” Roeske said. “I believe that the plan that they brought forward best meets the needs of our children and our community.

“It’s going to be incumbent on this board to make sure that every dollar we invest is invested wisely,” he said. “I believe in this tech bond; I believe it’s the right approach.”

Roeske said he talked to people in real estate, and they think it will help bring more families into the community.

While the district can’t take a stance to tell people to vote one way or another on a ballot proposal, they have been in the community giving information on the proposal, answering questions and trying to inform the public about the upcoming vote.

They’ve been to City Council meetings, PTOs and took part in a recent Grosse Pointe League of Women Voters forum.

The forum held earlier this month allowed a few district officials an opportunity to talk about the proposal and field questions from the audience.

Superintendent Thomas Harwood also spoke on the need for technology upgrades. He told those at the League of Women Voters event that if everyone had to sign onto a computer at the school to take part in an activity, the activity would be delayed for about 20 minutes because of lag times and other issues.

“Over half of our computers in our school setting are older than our oldest child in the elementary school,” Harwood said, adding that there are computers that can no longer be upgraded.

“(It’s) looking at how we provide instruction to students today that’s going to provide the foundation for success tomorrow,” Harwood said. “Our students have access to unlimited information, and we want to provide that access as they draw conclusions to be able to be creative innovators in our community.”

When it comes to bringing your own devices, teacher Gary Abud said that it would mean that everyone wouldn’t have a device or that the devices would be different from each other.

“We want to make sure that we’re providing students an opportunity for equal access,” Abud said.

While opponents of this tech bond have asked why the 80 percent of taxpayers who do not have children in the district should have to fund the purchase of personal-use devices for students, Harwood explained that those without children benefit from a strong school district.

“It’s an issue of investment in the community,” Harwood said. “Education’s at the forefront of what we’re able to offer here, as a community.

“We benefit greatly from the results of the students who come out of our community,” he said.

Ultimately, Roeske asked that people go to the district’s website and review the information about the tech bond themselves before deciding how to vote. Harwood said they have been working hard to get information out and answer questions.

“We have 13 pages of frequently asked questions,” Harwood said.