Technology needs included in LHISD bond package

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By MIKE EDDLEMAN
Managing Editor

Amid the new campuses, renovations and athletic facilities questions included as part of the $491.7 million Liberty Hill ISD bond package on the May 1 ballot is Proposition B, which asks voters to approve $8 million for school technology.

More specifically, the ask is for funds to meet the needs of the district’s new one-to-one device initiative that ensures a computer device for every student and teacher.

But how many devices does that mean the district needs?

The district has roughly 5,700 students currently using devices, along with about 700 staff members needing devices, but it is not a hard number because more students are added regularly, and a straight one-to-one doesn’t function well.

“One of the things I tell people all the time is a one-to-one program requires more than that,” said LHISD Chief Technology Officer Jay Olivier. “If you have 5,700 students and 5,700 devices you do not have enough. What happens is the very first day you put them out there something is going to break or something is going to happen and you won’t have a spare device for them to continue working. You have to have enough for those that break or need to be repaired.”

The goal is to have five to 10 percent more devices than the total needed.

“You also have to have enough devices for the growth we’re constantly seeing,” he said. “We’re seeing new students every single day so we have to make sure we can keep up with those new students as well as keep up with the breakage, the repairs and additional needs that come up.”

According to Chief Financial Officer Rosanna R. Guerrero, the district spent about $800,000 on devices this year alone in ramping up the one-to-one program, and that cost was aided with CARES Act funds and other monies from Texas Education Agency.

“This was the first year that Liberty Hill ISD went to a one-to-one device ratio,” she said. “We’ve never had that before and because of the pandemic and the need to do more online instruction there was this surge to get 100 percent to one-to-one. Now we have to maintain that and we don’t have access in the budget to have those types of dollar items because that one-to-one ratio is very demanding.”

The bond proposition is necessary because purchasing new devices each year at the rate needed currently does not fit into the budget.

The district has been primarily using two devices, an iPad at the younger grades and Chromebooks for all others, but through feedback and analysis that is expected to change some.

“We reevaluate that regularly and have just recently been through the process of reevaluating the younger and upper grade levels,” Olivier said. “We make adjustments every year based on advances in technology and what’s available and what the needs are for students and teachers.”

The plan now is to continue using iPads through first grade, then move students to Chromebooks beginning in second grade.

“These will provide some extra functionality,” Olivier said. “Students at those grade levels will benefit greatly from having access to a touchscreen on the devices. The touchscreen provides a tactile experience for those students that works really well. We can bring that into the lower grade levels while still providing a device that has a full size keyboard and basic mouse support so they can learn those skills as well and really shift to the more intensive, creative projects they do as they get older.”

The Chromebooks will be used up through eighth grade, and then beginning in ninth grade shift to a Windows laptop.

“The other shift we’re looking at, based on feedback we’ve had, is changing our high school students over to a Windows PC laptop instead of the Chromebooks we’ve been using,” Olivier said. “The Chromebooks were successful for the first couple of years, but at this point the amount of use the students are bringing to the classroom and the amount of creative processes and advanced work they’re doing at those levels they have really reached the limit of what we can do with the Chromebooks at this point.”

iPads and Chromebooks are about $250 to $300 per device, with the Windows PC laptops being higher at about $400, but those prices are dependent on specifications as well as other factors.

“The cost of devices have changed a bit now versus if you’d have asked me a year and a half ago,” Olivier said. “One of the consequences of this global pandemic has been supply chain disruptions which have caused what was a buyers market – where I was getting things well below what the typical asking price was – to shift, and now there are not nearly as many discounts and there are back orders.”

Nailing down the lifespan of these devices is not as simple as picking a date due to a number of factors.

“One is the manufacturers have been working really hard to extend the life farther than we would have thought,” he said.

“We still have Chromebooks in circulation and working that we bought my first year in the district (six years ago). They’re obviously some of the ones we see the highest level of repairs needed and they’re not the nicest ones out there, but they’re still functional. That’s quite a feat.”

But Olivier said the target is four years with the option of keeping them in service a firth year if needed.

Even in later years they can often be repurposed for many uses even when not suitable for the most high-end needs and functionality.

While there is a target date, Olivier said it is a much more finessed process when deciding when to replace them.

“For Chromebooks and most devices what we actually look at is historical trends and historically how long we’ve been able to hold those devices in,” Olivier said. “We have tracking on every single device we’ve purchased in the district. We look at when it was purchased, we look at the manufacturing date and we put a ticking clock on each one. Because we’re not always accurate in that we adjust those year by year and reevaluate.

“Sometimes we’re able to get an extra year of life out of something because there wasn’t as much advancement that year as we thought there would be and some years we aren’t able to get as much as we thought because a significant change occurred. We go model by model and I have spreadsheets upon spreadsheets that show all the different models we have, their expected life, how many of each one we have, where they are and we look at that constantly.”

Because the computer devices have a much shorter lifespan than the new buildings and renovations found in other propositions in the bond package, Guerrero said the financing plan is much different as well.

“We will break up the purchase of these devices on a yearly basis because we’re growing year after year,” Guerrero said. “The devices are needed not only to replace the outdated devices, but we also need to buy devices for the additional students and staff coming on board. Every year we do a sale, we break out the cost of the bonds and make sure that we finance the devices separately and we pay those off within the first five years so that when we pay off the bonds that is actually the life of the device, so it is fully depreciated and the debt associated with the device is aligned.”

Sales over time
Similar to the plan to expend the device funds over time, the same will hold true for the remainder of the bond funds to better manage the monies.

“The bonds will be sold based on need, so we are not going to go out and sell all $491.7 million in one sale,” Guerrero said. “We are braking them up and right now the plan is to do annual sales, with the first sale happening this summer for about $160 million to get started on the additional needs in terms of construction timelines and such.”

The flexibility in when to sell the bonds positions the district to avoid moving too quickly should the growth pattern in Liberty Hill shift or slow.

“There is no particular timeline,” Guerrero said. “If the growth doesn’t come as fast as we’re anticipating and we don’t have to sell, we can slow down our construction timeline. I can do for example 160 (million) this summer, and if the growth is actually slowing down then I don’t have to sell for maybe two years alter because maybe two years is when the growth is coming. We can play it by ear, but the downside to that is if it comes faster then we may be in a situation where we can’t sell them fast enough.”

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