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All students in the Madison School District would have their own tablets or notebook computers by the 2018-19 school year under a five-year, $31 million plan proposed by Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham.

If approved, the plan would increase the district’s current

$1.5 million annual technology budget to $4.2 million in the 2014-15 school year to start upgrading the district’s network infrastructure, upgrade or equip classrooms and libraries with new technology or computers, and provide notebook computers to all district teachers and administrators. Elementary teachers also would get tablet computers under the plan.

Costs to upgrade are projected to increase each of the five years of the plan for a total of $31 million spent in that time. Afterward, the annual budget for technology would be about $7 million per year going forward.

“We’re living in a world where students go home and use technology at night and on the weekend and when they come to the classroom, they use a pencil and paper everyday,” said Cheatham in an interview on Monday. “We’ve been behind, and we want our district to be on the leading edge of this work.”

Overall, the five-year cost is $23.5 million more than the district’s current technology budget.

Madison School Board members, who formally received the plan at their meeting Monday, were mostly optimistic about the plan. Board member T.J. Mertz questioned whether the program needed to be as extensive as it’s proposed given what he said were other unmet needs in the district and given research that he called “universally disappointing” surrounding such initiatives.

Mertz said in an interview after Monday’s board meeting that he agrees with the majority of the investments in technology under the plan, “but then there’s a third or a quarter where I think it’s going overboard.”

As an example, Mertz said he questions whether every kindergarten student needs their own tablet computer.

“I think there’s a place between feast and famine and I think the district has not been absolutely famished, but close to it, and I think we should looking at a happy medium. In terms of the financial picture, yes, there are investments to be made elsewhere,” he said.

Board member Mary Burke said though she has not supported some technology plans in the past, she supports Cheatham’s current plan because she believes it reduces the opportunity for creating a “digital divide” between students from low-income families and students from wealthier families because of the district-wide access to technology it would provide.

“It really is up to us to make sure that our students are able to handle technology and be so comfortable with it because it has become a life skill, and we don’t want to see that divide based on family income,” Burke said.

Under the proposed plan, students in kindergarten through fifth grade would use tablets kept in the classroom, while sixth through 12th graders would be allowed to take notebook computers home from school. No associated student fees are being considered currently, said Cheatham.

“Transitioning from tablets to notebook in the secondary schools will allow students to focus on writing, use more advanced collaborative applications such as Google Docs and Google apps, and access and create learning games to learn principles of design and coding,” the proposal document said.

Cheatham said she wants the added annual spending on technology to be built into the regular operating budget, which this year is $392 million.

“We feel that this is a commitment to essential instructional tools and resources ... therefore, the right thing to do is to build it into the operating budget,” she said. The school board also discussed at Monday’s meeting the idea of proposing a referendum to voters, which they will discuss later this spring.

Separate notebook computers would be leased to be used for computer-based assessments only, to avoid turning libraries into testing centers, Cheatham said.

Andrew Statz, the district’s chief information officer, said the district may also allow students to bring their own devices to school, which could result in a cost savings. He said during Monday’s board meeting that as part of the proposed leasing contracts, families would not be held financially liable for lost or broken devices.

It’s unclear which software or electronic textbooks will be installed on the devices, and for which subject areas. Statz said those decisions will be made by a team of district staff, if the plan is approved. 

The plan to provide each student with a device would be implemented in phases, with the first round of schools — two elementary schools, one middle school and one high school yet to be determined –- receiving their devices during the 2015-16 school year.

The tablets and notebook computers would be leased for three years, according to the proposal. Which brand of tablet or notebook computer the district would lease has not yet been decided, Cheatham said.

Statz said leasing instead of purchasing devices will eliminate end-of-life repair costs.

The district currently has a couple thousand iPads available to students at a few schools.

All classrooms also would be outfitted with an interactive projection device and a white board that would allow the teacher and students to project images from their personal devices. The plan also calls for upgrades to school libraries, network servers, professional development for teachers and the hiring of an instructional technology coordinator and four instructional technology coaches. Library media specialists would become library media technology specialists, the plan said.

Board president Ed Hughes and board member James Howard both said they are still mulling the details, but welcome the plan.

“I am glad that we are getting a well-thought-out and researched plan for us to consider since upgrading technology is an important goal for all of us in the school district,” said Hughes in an interview Monday.

Board member Marj Passman said she supports the plan, which she says the district has needed for years. “We are lagging behind most of our neighboring districts. We have to do something and do it fast to catch up, and it has to be equitable so children who don’t have, get,” Passman said in an interview Monday. “Will we be able to afford that, though, without a referendum? I think this community would be willing to support a referendum to bring this district into this century.”

An advisory group of teachers, parents, librarians and others will meet Thursday to review the proposed plan. A meeting for public input on the plan will take place from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Jan. 22 at Memorial High School. The school board will vote on accepting the plan at its Jan. 27 meeting, but will not formally approve paying for it until the district’s regular budgeting process begins.

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Molly Beck covers politics and state government for the Wisconsin State Journal.