A request from Moore County Schools to acquire more than 4,000 computing devices through a lease-to-own agreement over the next four years was approved by the county commissioners in a 4-1 split vote on Tuesday.
The technology “refresh,” which was proposed as three separate contracts totaling $1.5 million, requires no additional funding from the county.
But Commissioner Louis Gregory felt the decision could wait until the commissioners have heard public input on the proposal.
At about $350,000 each year, the lease will be funded from the county’s annual $750,000 set-aside for the district’s digital learning fund beginning in the upcoming fiscal year.
The schools will lease 350 laptops for elementary school teachers district wide, 125 laptops for teachers at Southern and West Pine middle schools, and 3,800 Chromebooks for middle and high school students in the Union Pines and North Moore attendance areas. At the end of the four-year lease, the district will have the option of purchasing those devices for $1 each.
Middle and high school students districtwide are issued Chromebook computers for their personal use during the school year. Libby Carter, chair of the Moore County Board of Education, said that has helped them handle this year’s abrupt transition from traditional to remote learning when North Carolina closed public schools in mid-March in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
“We have been very fortunate in the schools during the past nine weeks because we have had such an innovative digital learning program,” Carter said.
Moore County Schools have established a plan to replace devices issued to students and teachers every four years. Currently, teachers at Southern and West Pine are using laptops originally issued in 2012.
Chromebooks now issued to Union Pines and North Moore area students are nearing the end of a three-year lease. School staff presented the lease-purchase plan for new devices to replace them during the commissioners’ meeting on Tuesday, which was held via the Webex meeting platform and accessible both online and by phone.
“I don’t know about the computers in your home, but I think we all know that as computers get older….they don’t necessarily work properly and we face getting farther behind,” said Carter. “We’re not asking for more money … but to simply maintain at the level that we have had in the past so our students and our teachers are not the ones to suffer.”
A hiccup came in the form of an unidentified caller who began to criticize the proposal before her phone could be muted.
Gregory then suggested that the commissioners hold off on voting until after the county’s public budget hearing next month.
“I have never said that I’m not in support of digital learning, but two months’ delay is not an emergency that we need to take care of today without hearing from the public,” he said. “We’ve got ample time to be able to hear what the public has to say before we go forward.”
Digital learning funds aren’t granted directly to the schools, rather the district decides how to spend them and then the county pays the bills.
“It is included in the general fund budget but it does not go to Moore County Schools for distribution or payment of invoices,” said County Manager Wayne Vest. “That money sits with the county, the schools submit the invoices based on the lease agreements that you have, and the county pays those invoices.”
Though the first lease payment for the new computers wouldn’t be due until after July 1, the first day of the 2021 fiscal year, school staff said that once they enter into a contract the district could take possession of the devices in June to begin setting them up for the coming school year.
Carter pointed out that online learning in some form is likely to extend beyond the coronavirus pandemic. Earlier this month, the North Carolina legislature added five “remote learning” days to its calendar requirements for public schools.
“All indications show that we may be doing a lot more online learning, a lot more virtual instruction over the next few months, even to years, and continuing to fund this digital initiative is absolutely critical to keeping our students learning,” said Carter. “I ask that you look diligently at that before making an abrupt decision to discontinue support.”
Since leasing new devices won’t involve extra funding from the county, the other commissioners proceeded to approve the schools’ request. Commissioner Otis Ritter pointed out that the county has funded school technology in the same way for several years.
“Every board prior to this has seen the need for these laptops or Chromebooks, and I don’t think there’s anyone on that board that would disapprove that $750,000 and scrap this program. If we do we are really going backward in time,” said Ritter.
“I don’t think we need to scrap this program at this time and start throwing it out to the public. I think the board is going to approve these Chromebooks and if we don’t I’m ashamed of being on this board.”
Commissioners Catherine Graham and Jerry Daeke echoed Ritter’s comments. Graham’s motion to approve the agreement passed 4-1, with Gregory opposed.
“Sometimes we need to make decisions that are, let’s just say, sensible. There’s just so much time in the day and the month to prepare these units for the coming school year,” said Chairman Frank Quis. “I’ve had some firsthand experience with grandchildren and remote learning this past couple of weeks and seeing the importance of up-to-date equipment. I don’t think we’re out of bounds for approval of this given that there would be no invoices until July 1.”
The district is planning a similar tradeout of computers issued to Pinecrest, Southern, and West Pine Middle students a year from now.
In other business on Tuesday, the commissioners unanimously approved a similar three-year lease-purchase agreement for new servers and data storage equipment at Moore County Schools’ data center at Pinckney.
The equipment there now is at the end of its five-year warranty, and the district has no backup system in the event of failure. Once replaced, the current data center equipment will be moved offsite to serve that purpose.
At $168,000 over three years, funding for the new equipment will come from a combination of state and local funds. The state requires the commissioners’ approval of any lease-purchase agreement three years or more in duration.