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Laptop Initiative shot down by lone vote

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Norbert Skees opposes computer proposal

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The proposed Laptops of LaRue Initiative – a plan that would place laptop computers in the hands of every LaRue County High School student – was shot down by a lone school board member Monday.

Superintendent Sam Sanders had requested the project move forward with the unanimous consent of school board members. The vote was 4-1 with Norbert Skees of District 1 voting “no.”

Several students, teachers, parents and community members, including the LCHS site-based decision-making council, made statements in support of the initiative. Kentucky Commissioner of Education Dr. Terry Holliday addressed the school board via a Skype conference at the meeting, offering his support of the 21st century learning initiative.

Skees read a statement giving reasons for his vote against the laptop initiative. They included budget woes, technology concerns, liability issues and a possible tie to childhood obesity.

“There are also too many questions about students getting involved in Internet sites that we cannot control and setting this board up for potential liability,” he said. “I think most teachers in this district have been left out of this planning process. I must say students need to learn to use computers, but technology is not the foundation of a good education, nor is this the magic bullet to solve our educational problems.”

He cited research from a 2007 article about a New York high school where laptops were phased out because students found ways around network security and because of hardware and network problems; a 2008 blog by Jared M., a “student at Daviess County High School,” who claims initiating the laptop initiative was a bad idea; and research of initiatives in Maine, the “flagship for the laptop program in the United States,” which after several years saw no change in test scores and has no evidence that the laptop programs improved reading or writing skills.

“Personally, I think the intent of all school districts that implemented these laptop programs was to prepare their students for a technology-driven world and close the digital gap between students who have computers and those who do not, but with all of those good intentions computers can become a worrisome change,” Skees said.

“Teachers do not know how to yet use computers as an instructional tool,” he added. “Computers cannot teach students the ability to listen, nor to communicate, nor can they teach students to think critically and use their imagination.”

In the 2008 blog from the “student from Daviess County,” Jared M. describes issues with computers crashing and having to be sent off, not having enough spare computers to go around and a lack of computer technicians to handle the number of laptops in the school.

Skees said computers, combined with little exercise and poor diet, may contribute to obesity.

“Children spend so much time in front of the television, playing video games and using the computer,” he said. “Technology has taken over our children’s lives and leaves little time for exercise. Children have become accustomed to technology and childhood obesity.”

“I understand young people always have wants and don’t understand the fiscal responsibilities that go along with those wants,” he said.

“I guess one of the most interesting calls I have had came from a local retired teacher who saw the primary advantage of the laptop initiative was to benefit her granddaughter from having to carry heavy textbooks.”

Board member Ronnie Chelf, who hesitated during the vote for the initiative, said while he may have some concerns about sustaining the program, “we have to have faith in our teachers to get the job done.”

He said there would be issues to resolve, but in the end he voted for the initiative because he believes this is what is best for the students of LaRue County.

Sanders said the initiative will be considered again next year.

The money for the initiative has been escrowed and Sanders said it would not mean an increase in taxes.

Audience comments

Many people offered opinions of the Laptops of LaRue Initiative before the board’s vote was taken.

Holliday said he had seen the laptop initiatives in action at Todd and McCracken counties, and that the level of student and teacher engagement at those schools was very high, and he is “very excited” at the prospect of school days no longer being confined to the time in the classroom.

“Our children will be competing for jobs that do not yet exist,” Holliday said, and adopting a laptop initiative would give LaRue County students a head start at getting the experience necessary for obtaining those jobs.

Kim Mather, former English teacher at LCHS, spoke about being one of very few teachers at the high school who had the “luxury” of teaching classes with computers in the classroom.

“I was able to go paperless and bookless the last four years I taught,” Mather said. She was also able to cut her work time in half.

Community member Dennis Coy voiced his concerns about the initiative, stating his main problem was being able to sustain the program over time.

“In today’s economic times ... with people losing jobs ... how will we be able to pay for it in the future?”

“Don’t short change the kids down the road,” he said.

Retired educator Nina Hutchins said after doing research on her own to answer many of the questions she had, she “could not imagine a school board who would vote against this.”

She said teachers have been able to double the amount of instruction in the same amount of instructional time, and this is an “opportunity for students and teachers to demonstrate excellence.”

“The futures of all of our high school students are in your hands tonight,” Hutchins said. “It’s time to put our students first and self-serving groups last.”

“You will either be voting for our students or against our students tonight,” she said.

Coy suggested putting the issue on the ballot and “let the people vote for it.”

Kenny Rambo, LaRue County Chamber of Commerce president, said the elected board members circumvented the need for a public vote, since the board members represent the public who put them in office.

“This decision is one of either leading or following,” he said. “Technology is here to stay, and we have an opportunity to lead.”

To those who suggested a declining tax base due to rising unemployment in the county, Rambo said adopting this initiative would put LaRue County at the head of the pack of surrounding schools, and families looking for places to live, especially those relocating with the upcoming BRAC transition to Ft. Knox would have good reason to consider LaRue County Schools for their children.

He said investing in our students through this initiative would help attract those people to settle in LaRue County and would in turn cause an increase in the tax base for the county.

LCHS teacher Katy Cecil said, “There are a lot of teachers in this room, and we are all here because we want you to vote yes.”

LCHS student Ian Mather said, “Don’t be a ‘no man,’ embrace the opportunity and just say yes.”

“This initiative will change the way our teachers teach,” LCHS Principal Paul Mullins said. “This initiative is what’s in the best interest of our students.”

“Nothing is more expensive than a missed opportunity,” he said.

Following the meeting, Rambo said he is “very disappointed” by the vote and “will take the steps necessary to see this measure through.”