Cobb County, Ga., schools superintendent Joseph Redden, the architect of an erstwhile, controversial multimillion-dollar program to provide laptop computers to students and teachers, resigned Aug. 23 under pressure from a divided school board. At a board meeting yesterday, school system officials began searching for Redden’s replacement.

Redden’s sudden resignation came just days after an independent consulting firm hired by the board released a report on the laptop program, which eventually would have provided laptops for all teachers and students in grades six through 12 district-wide, making it one of the largest in the nation. The report questioned the politics behind the laptop deal and openly criticized the schools chief for failing to adequately sell and explain the details of the project to the community at large.

The report, conducted by New York-based Kessler International, was just the latest in a string of developments that called into question the future of the program–and with it, Redden’s performance.

In July, a lawsuit brought by former county commissioner Butch Thompson effectively killed the initiative–originally dubbed Power to Learn. A county judge ruled that officials had not properly informed local taxpayers how the school system intended to use the money collected through a 2003 sales tax created to fund the project. (See “Court ruling halts Cobb’s laptop plans.”)

Things got even worse for Redden when a witness who testified during the sales-tax hearings hinted that the district pressured officials into awarding the lucrative laptop contract to Apple Computer Inc., despite misgivings on behalf of some members of the selection committee. As a result, the school board hired Kessler to investigate the deal. The district, meanwhile, invited Cobb County District Attorney Pat Head to look into its internal bidding processes.

On Aug. 1, school board chair Kathie Johnstone, an ardent Redden supporter, told the public that the laptop program was “no longer an option.” The board later voted to kill the contract without seeking an appeal on the sales tax ruling.

Though officials still await word from Head’s office on the legality of the proposed deal with Apple, the independent audit and the firestorm that resulted was enough to convince Redden to step down.

Redden said the debate over the technology program had divided the school board and was diverting attention from other issues.

“For the good of the district, this helps us move forward. No individual is more important than the organization,” said the retired Air Force general, who became superintendent of the 104,000-student district almost five years ago.

In a statement to school district staff members, Redden said he hoped they would be able to focus on student achievement without “the added distractions that have consumed our energy of late.”

The school system originally had planned to buy more than 63,000 laptops, 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“).

“I think it was an error to discuss the size of the program” from the start, Redden was quoted as saying Aug. 21 in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In the weeks leading up to his resignation, the paper printed several editorials and news stories questioning Redden’s emphasis on the size of the project as opposed to the details, especially its cost.

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 have received laptops sooner than next year.

The second-largest school district in Georgia, next to metro Atlanta, Cobb County has a reported operating budget of $1 billion a year–$75 million of that is allotted for technology.

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 was supposed to begin later and would have doled out laptops to middle school students. Each phase was subject to school board approval. Some estimates pegged the total cost of the program at more than $100 million over the next several years.

Districts in Maine, Michigan, Texas, Virginia, Florida, 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,” declared Rep. Judy Manning, a Marietta Republican, in 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.

The board president commented on Redden’s impending departure: “This is a sad day for our schools, because we are losing a leader,” said Johnstone. “Joe Redden is a man of integrity whose biggest concern has always been doing what was best for the kids of Cobb County.”

Chief Academic Officer Jill Kalina is expected to serve as interim superintendent until a decision on Redden’s replacement is reached, the Journal-Constitution reported Aug. 24.

Links:

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