Panhandle To Purchase New Computers

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More than half a billion dollars has been allocated to Illinois schools through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. On Monday, May 18, the Panhandle School Board took the first steps in using some of their allocation to advance technology in the district.

During the technology report of the monthly board meeting (which was held via Zoom), Superintendent Aaron Hopper suggested the possibility of using part of the $124,960 allocated to the district to purchase 225 laptops, which would provide a computer for every student in the Panhandle District from second through 12th grade for the 2020-2021 school year. Some of the younger grades are already using iPads, which would be transitioned to the kindergarten and first grade students.

According to Hopper, the computers would be the same model, but a newer version of the ones currently used by the Lincolnwood High School students. Each computer costs $217 apiece, for a total of $49,000 for the computers.

Hopper said that the grant funds would also be used for 13 mobile carts for classrooms. The laptops would stay at the school for the younger students unless they are needed for e-learning, with the high school students allowed to take theirs home. Each device would have Microsoft 365, along with safety and security measures.

“It’s forward thinking, but it’s also using grant dollars to take care of a need,” Hopper said of the project.

Board member Bret Slightom said he was in favor of the purchase, saying that if the district was going to have a technology teacher at the grade school level, the students should have their own computers. Carrie Matthews was hired for the position during the February meeting to expand the district’s technology presence in the younger grades. Slightom added that the purchase of the computers would lessen the learning curve for students later on and if they choose to take online classes in high school.

Lincolnwood Principal Ken Schuster said that the purchase will put the district in a very good spot and warned that the district, and the state, may not be done with remote learning.

Board member Scott Cowdrey asked if the teachers were on board with the addition of computers to the classrooms. Hopper said that conversations with the teachers were what made him move forward with the possible expansion of the 1-to-1 program. He said that teachers from multiple grades and locations had spoken favorably about expanding technology in the classroom.

Board member Linda Brown said that some parents have expressed frustration over different teachers using different methods or equipment in remote learning. Hopper said that the district is looking to apply some guidelines and commonality for the district’s teachers to alleviate those issues. He added that the grant funds can also be used for professional development for teachers.

Cowdrey asked if lack of internet connection has been an issue with students. Schuster said that it hasn’t been much of a problem, with only seven students in the junior high and high school without internet. Those students were able to come to the school and use hotspots that reached the school’s parking lot.

Hopper said that even if there isn’t internet in a home, students would be able to download material while at school, then bring the computers home with them. The motion to purchase the computers passed 7-0.

In addition to the technology enhancements, Hopper said that the grant money will also be used for personal protective equipment and supplies. The district plans to purchase masks for the staff and possibly other PPE items, such as thermometers and backpack sanitizer, depending on what the situation calls for in the fall.

Hopper also discussed the possible options for school in the fall, a date for which has not been set yet by the state. He said that the three options were a normal or delayed start, a return to remote learning or a hybrid of in-person school and remote learning. 

Hopper said that he will be working with other districts to formalize plans and should have a better idea by the end of May. This week, students will be picking up items left during the school year on May 21-22, with staff present to hand the items back to parents as they drive up. On May 26-29, Hopper said that teachers will be working with guidance counselors to finalize grades, with graduation plans finalized on June 5.

With school closing earlier than usual, the district has been able to move forward on its summer maintenance plan. Hopper said that the restrooms in the Lincolnwood cafeteria have been updated with a lighter color of paint, new lighting and remounted sinks, while insulation has been added to the bus garage for energy conservation.

He added that there are few major projects on tap, mostly just general cleaning. One project, painting of the hallway outside the gym, is on hold until students pick up their items on May 21-22.

Hopper said that the roof project has finally been signed off on and the district is transitioning to the Pelican HVAC control system. He added that one teacher said that it was the best the HVAC had run in her 15 years, since it was no longer constantly running wide open.

Earlier in the meeting, Hopper discussed the district’s fees and the possibility of waiving a portion of those fees. He said that other districts have discussed waiving all or a portion of the fees, which ranged from $20,000 for everything to $4,000 for just the district technology fee.

Cowdrey asked if there was any way to recoup those lost funds? Hopper said that some of the money could be reimbursed from the CARES Act grants, as well as some other options.

In other business, the board approved the requisitions for the 2021 fiscal year, along with the tentative 2020 amended budget. Hopper said there aren’t many changes to the requisitions, but there were some expenses from equipping the staff with laptops, such as the purchase of periphery equipment such as mice and external DVD players for some elementary teachers.

Board President Terri Payne asked if the $2,000 increase in the cost of officials was due to girls basketball. Hopper said it was.

Board member Dana Pitchford asked if textbooks were included in the requisitions and when the last time a large purchase was made. Hopper said they weren’t and that the district has been using Amazon or a resale market when they need books. He said the last major purchase of textbooks was in 2011, but the district had been interested in a new reading curriculum for the grade school before everything shutdown due to COVID-19.

During the budget amendment discussion, Hopper said that the district will get a reimbursement from Midstate Special Education and other changes may need to be made due to the coronavirus’s affect on the Montgomery County facilities tax.

Cowdrey asked what the impact had been, noting that the county sales tax numbers  they receive are often a few months behind. Hopper said that the district received $22,000, which would be from February sales tax. He added that the district averaged $27,000 per month last year, but it will be another month or so before the real impact of the virus on those numbers is seen.

Cowdrey also asked if the ROE school had paid the district. Hopper said they had and that the district had made some revenue from phone and internet usage by the school. Pitchford asked if the relationship with the ROE school went well in the first year. Hopper said he thought so, with Panhandle custodial staff spending less than an hour a day cleaning.

Brown asked if the lunch process worked for both sides. Hopper said it did, with Panhandle keeping track of meals, then billing the ROE.

The only other question regarding the budget was clarification on the IDEA flow through. Hopper said that is a federal grant for special education, which the district utilized $130,000 in funds from last year.

In addition to those motions, the consent agenda and the first reading of board policies discussed during the policy committee meeting were also approved during the 57 minute open session to start the night. 

After meeting in closed session for 52 minutes, the board emerged, with Pitchford absent, and approved the hiring of Carrlie Bitschenauer as an elementary school teacher and accepted the resignation of Caleb Kirkpatrick as assistant golf coach. 

The meeting adjourned at 8:52 p.m., with the next meeting set for June 22, at 7 p.m.

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