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Sunday, March 21, 2004

$40 million and counting...

This article was in today's Ft. Worth paper and explains how the Ft. Worth Independent School District has apparently squandered $40 million on new computer equipment for the kiddies without thinking about the increased electrical demand that the computers create. The result is that many schools aren't able to use the computers without tripping the circuit breakers. The main upshot is that the FWISD faces additional tens of millions of dollars to retrofit school buildings - some up to 80 years old - to handle the increased electric consumption.


Some quotes are especially telling:

When discussing the fact that money wasn't earmarked for "power needs" when thinking about how to spend the $40 million, or in asking the Ft. Worth voters for $15 million in bonds,

"Nobody thought of it,"school board member Judy Needham said.

Okay, so there wasn't anyone who has ever plugged the toaster into the wrong plug and flipped the circuit breaker in their own house?!? Ms. Needham's claim is probably true but it is also terrifying. This is one of the problems of technology in the classroom - everybody is convinced that it has to be there but not too many people have any idea what good the technology will provide. It is useful, I suppose, for children to learn how to use the computer for certain things, but it is far from obvious that every classroom in the entire FWISD should have up to ten computers each.

Here is another great quote:

The district decided to put computers in every classroom in part because Tocco and the school board wanted equity among schools.

"I'm a big, big fan of equity. Every school has to be treated the same," said board member Jean McClung, who is on the district's technology committee.

So in the end, equality is having computers in every classroom - whether they can be turned on or not is a different, and evidently, mutually exclusive concern. Here is the problem with using equality as an objective function, it forces reason to take a back seat to emotion.

Here is another one - LISTEN UP ANTITRUST LAWYERS -

With multiple operating systems, the district paid more than it should have and will continue to face higher expenses, technology experts said.

"The question is not so much which [software] is better or worse. The idea is, if you standardize on a single platform, you're going to reduce your costs," said Mark Margevicius, an analyst with Gartner Inc., a Stamford, Conn., firm that specializes in information technology.

Mr. Margevicius understands that a single standard operating system can save money. This is obvious to most economists, but has been lost on antitrust prosecutors hell bent on taking down Microsoft, the very company that produces the software that the FWISD wishes to employ to save money.

And finally, here is a great statement about how "emotion" runs the public education system:

But at the insistence of some teachers and administrators, Richardson and Tocco said, the district invested more than $1.48 million in Apple machines and equipment in the past three years. The teachers were familiar with Apples, Richardson said, and if the district had provided new PCs instead, it would have faced additional training costs.

Tocco said he was not ready to recommend that teachers toss out their Apples.

"It's such an emotional thing currently," he said.

So, teachers have a love for Apple computers, which currently has a whopping 0.000000035 market share (okay, that's a joke - the real market share is closer to 3%), and teachers are allowed to use "emotion" to convince the FWISD to purchase computers that, in the long run, would seem to not provide the human capital that PC based machines would offer. It is mind boggling that emotion would be allowed to determine approximately 4% of the school district's techonology funds.

I do not live in Ft. Worth and did not vote on the bond package that funded 37.5% of the wasted technology dollars; if I had voted for the funds, I would be demanding that some heads roll somewhere. However, the print version of the story indicates that the additional $25 million came from state and federal funding sources - so all of us are partly on the hook for the wasted $40 million. The computers that were purchased are, for the most part, not being used because there isn't enough electrical capacity in the school buildings. As you read this the computers are becoming dated, and therefore FWISD will have to re-purchase new computers at some point in the future, necessitating an additional $40 million or more in spending. Should we trust these people to do a better job the next time around? Perhaps the FWISD should purchase computers that run on solar or wind power (we have lots of that here in Texas).

The greatest statement in the entire story - "Political factors may have swayed purchasing decisions." No duh.

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