One of the nation’s most ambitious programs to equip teachers and students with laptop computers “is no longer an option,” declared Kathie Johnstone, chair of the Cobb County, Ga., school board. A county judge ruled against the laptop program on July 29, and Johnstone’s announcement came after the school board met with its attorney for two hours and 15 minutes on Aug. 1.

The school board reportedly has 30 days to appeal the judge’s decision, and Johnstone said the board is still weighing that option.

School officials in Cobb County, Ga., saw their plans for a massive one-to-one laptop initiative halted–at least temporarily–when a county Superior Court judge ruled that officials had not properly informed local taxpayers how the school system intended to use the money collected through a sales tax passed in 2003 that would have funded the program.

Judge S. Lark Ingram said her ruling had nothing to do with the merits of the district’s “Power to Learn” program. “Fair notice of such use was not given to the public when the referendum for [the sales tax] was held,” Judge Ingram declared.

The ruling came in a lawsuit brought by former county commissioner Butch Thompson to stop Power to Learn. The program, which was introduced with great fanfare by Superintendent Joe Redden in February, has been mired in controversy almost since its inception.

Thompson and former Gov. Roy Barnes, his attorney, argued at a hearing in July that school officials participated in a “bait-and-switch operation” when they promised that the 1 percent sales tax would, in part, “refresh obsolete workstations.”

The school system originally had planned to provide more than 63,000 laptops for all students in grades six through 12, making Cobb County home to one of the largest educational laptop programs in the nation, but it scaled back those plans in April, opting instead to roll out the program on a pilot basis before extending it to the entire district (see “Critics diminish grand laptop plan.”)

Under the revised plan, all teachers in the district were to receive laptops this year. Current computer connections at the district’s high schools were to be revamped, and as many as four schools were to become test sites for the laptop program, while the vast majority of high school students would not get laptops sooner than next year.

“The Cobb County Board of Education is disappointed in Friday’s court decision regarding the use of [tax] funds for technology improvements in the school district,” said a statement on the district’s web site. The school board was scheduled to meet Aug. 1 to discuss the program’s future.

Barnes argued that school officials should be held to information they distributed at the time of the vote, when they estimated they could buy 30,000 computers for students for about $32 million, as well as use tens of millions of dollars more–for a total of $76 million–to “refresh” items such as printers and servers and buy every teacher a “computing device.”

About $25 million of the sales-tax money was to be used for the program’s first phase, which the school board approved in April. The rest of the program was to be deployed in two subsequent phases, with the second beginning in 2006 and eventually putting laptops into the hands of every high school student in the district. The third and final phase would begin later and would dole out laptops to middle school students. Each phase was subject to school board approval.

District officials did not respond to telephone calls from an eSchool News reporter before press time. But supporters, including Redden, have acknowledged in the past that the plan would require a major financial investment over several years. Still, they say, the total cost would be just a fraction of the district’s $75 million annual technology budget.

“It’s a big undertaking, and that’s a little bit scary to a lot of people,” Redden told the Associated Press in April. “But our budget every year is a little over $1 billion. The amount of money you would spend on this is a relatively small percentage of the budget.”

Districts in Maine, Michigan, Texas, Virginia, and dozens of other places already are providing laptops to students. But cost proved an unforeseen obstacle in Cobb County–one that forced Redden and other proponents of the program to redraw their original blueprint.

“It’s too much taxpayer money that they do not have the taxpayers’ permission to use,” Rep. Judy Manning, a Marietta Republican, said during an interview in April.

Citing the sales tax, Manning said most voters believed the money would go toward routine maintenance at schools, not brand-new laptops.

Redden and other Power to Learn proponents continued to push for the program’s approval, even after the Atlanta Journal-Constitution–which has monitored the debate closely in recent weeks–reported that a witness who testified during the sales-tax hearing hinted that school administrators were pressured into picking Apple as the program’s technology vendor.

To avoid any controversy that would call into the question the school system’s bidding process–which also entertained proposals from Dell Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co., and IBM Corp.–the board of education invited Cobb County District Attorney Pat Head to investigate its bidding processes. It also hired a third-party consulting firm, New York-based Kessler International, to conduct an independent investigation of its own into the bidding process.

“We don’t believe there are any illegalities,” Redden told the Atlanta newspaper for a July 15 story. School officials said they don’t know how long the investigations will take.

Apple deferred an eSchool News reporter’s questions about the lawsuit to the school district.

Links:

Cobb County School District
http://www.cobb.k12.ga.us