Frustrated by the local school board’s decision to spend $1.7 million to provide Apple laptop computers for some junior high students but not others, residents of Stillwater, Minn., voiced their opposition by unseating three board members, while selecting a newcomer from the ballot and electing two write-in candidates in the Nov. 4 elections.

It took only a month of campaigning for write-in candidates Nancy Hoffman and Christopher Kunze to harness the public’s anger over the decision, which critics also said was an unnecessary expense in a time of tight budgets.

Though it’s unclear whether the election results will change the district’s laptop plans, observers say the incident serves as a stark reminder for school leaders nationwide of the importance of getting stakeholder buy-in before launching any ambitious technology initiative–as well as a compelling lesson in the power of the internet to mobilize support.

Stillwater’s anger runs deep

In late September, district officials announced that Oak-Land Junior High School, one of two area junior high schools, would become one of four National Demonstration Sites for student laptop computing during the next five years.

The program was created by Apple Computer to nominate schools of high standing that could further promote effective learning by integrating portable and wireless computing into the curriculum.

The district’s other junior high school, Stillwater Junior High School, also will take part in the program as a study site. The initiative will allow the schools to be part of a national network dedicated to sharing curricula and teaching methods to improve education for students, officials said. Both schools will receive extensive training, wireless access, microscopes, computers, and other digital equipment.

For Hoffman and Kunze, the plan seemed to come out of the blue. It also seemed part of a larger pattern of the school board acting without enough public input.

So they decided to do something about it.

With a month left before Election Day, the two–who knew each other only slightly at the time–started campaigning together as write-in candidates to send the district a message that residents were fed up.

That message was received–and then some–on Nov. 4 when Hoffman and Kunze were elected to the school board and the three incumbents who had voted for the laptop plan were defeated.

In an interview with eSchool News, Hoffman–who said she supports the use of technology in schools–cited cost and equity as her two main objections to the district’s laptop plans.

A large chunk of the district’s technology budget would be used to fund the program, she noted, even though the benefits would be reaped primarily by students at the two junior high schools. Further, while Stillwater students would have the computers for use in school, only Oak-Land students would be allowed to bring the machines home with them.

Hoffman also questioned whether district officials had made provisions for potential down-the-road costs, including additional support staff, maintenance, and related platform concerns likely to result as school technology leaders mull the switch from PCs to a predominantly Macintosh architecture.

According to school officials, the program will cost $340,000 per year for five years. The district said it plans to pay for the program by extracting $250,000 a year from the annual district-wide technology budget and $90,000 from Oak-Land’s existing capital budget. In addition, Apple has agreed to pay for training of school employees, installation services, and any additional network equipment.

But Hoffman and others opposed to the contract argue that pulling a quarter of a million dollars a year from a technology levy of $700,000 isn’t the best use of taxpayer money, especially in light of current budget shortfalls. “It’s just not cost-effective given the tight budgets,” she said.

Hoffman suggested the money could have been better spent at the high school level, where computers and other resources already have been stretched thin. As it stands now, the Stillwater Area High School could receive replenishment computers from the middle school, if and when the laptops arrive.

In defense of its actions, the district said it chose the program as a way to bolster student achievement.

“The decision to take part in this program stems from the district’s commitment to raising student achievement to the top 1 percent of students nationally,” officials said in a statement.

“All of our students will benefit by what we learn at Oak-Land and Stillwater Junior High School,” added Superintendent Kathleen Macy.

District officials had not returned an eSchool News reporter’s telephone calls before press time.

A lesson in electronic campaigning

Write-in candidates win school board seats from time to time, said Mike Torkelson of the Minnesota School Boards Association, but two in one race is highly unusual.

The scale of what Hoffman and Kunze accomplished impressed even some district residents who favor the laptop plan.

Afton resident Jim Amaral, a laptop proponent, said he is disappointed the board will be losing the experience and leadership of defeated incumbents Mary Cecconi, Christy Hlavacek, and John Uppgren.

“But I have to say, this is democracy in action,” he said. “What a great lesson.”

As soon as the district made the deal with Apple to provide students and teachers at Oak-Land Junior High with round-the-clock access to laptops, which would eventually be returned to the district, Hoffman and other residents started looking around for write-in candidates.

Someone told her about Kunze, a Stillwater resident with two young children who had been toying with the idea of running for school board. Hoffman approached him, and they decided to pool their resources.

Kunze, a computer consultant, became the computer guru, setting up a web site with biographical information about himself and Hoffman as well as their stand on the laptop issue. The site also had campaign posters people could download and stick on their cars.

Hoffman, a Stillwater resident with three children–including one at Stillwater Junior High, where students are not getting laptops for home use–coordinated the dozens of friends who came forward to volunteer.

Some made fliers, others brought literature door-to-door or passed it out at local meetings, and most called their friends or sent out eMail messages letting people know exactly how to enter Hoffman’s and Kunze’s names on Election Day.

Hoffman’s and Kunze’s campaign seemed to touch a nerve with Stillwater-area voters.

Close to 18 percent of the district’s registered voters submitted ballots, which was a higher turnout than surrounding districts and impressive given the lack of a levy question, said Kevin Corbid, who oversees Washington County’s elections. About 27 percent of the more than 20,000 votes cast went to Hoffman and Kunze, a figure that election officials said was unusually high for write-in candidates.

Technology and equity are hot-button issues in many communities, especially as budgets have been cut or stretched to the breaking point in recent years, said Nora Carr, senior vice president of public relations firm Luquire George Andrews Inc. and an eSchool News columnist.

“Parents want equal access to the best technology the district has to offer, same as they desire access to any other perceived advantage for their children,” she said.

But that often puts districts in an impossible situation, Carr said. Budget constraints make corporate partnerships and offers very attractive–but if these partnerships come with a lot of strings attached, competitors and others are not going to be very happy about them. Budget issues also mean that new technologies have to be phased in, she said, which means some students are going to have access to the latest technology and some are not.

“Communication with all constituency groups has to be much more extensive than in years past, and issues can flare up and become white-hot much more quickly, putting surprised administrators on the defensive,” Carr said.

“The only way to manage potential issues is to get out in front and communicate, communicate, communicate throughout the process. The web and direct marketing through electronic newsletters or e-blasts to key constituents can be very effective tools in this new 24-7 world we find ourselves in.”

What Carr said she finds most intriguing about this situation is that a few parents were able to quickly put together a web-based write-in campaign and win.

“Superintendents … and other district communicators need to catch up to where their constituents already are,” she said. “If you can’t get a compelling, jargon-free eMail message on an important issue out to key people in your community in 30 minutes or less, you’re simply not prepared to communicate effectively in the new media age.”

Despite Hoffman’s and Kunzie’s success, it’s unclear whether the election results will change anything about the laptop initiative. Superintendent Macy said the contract with Apple will be executed as planned, because breaking it would cost the district too much money.

See these related links:

Stillwater Area Schools
http://www.stillwater.k12.mn.us

Hoffman’s and Kunze’s web site
http://www.usecommonsense.us

Apple Computer Inc.
http://www.apple.com