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Worcester Schools Want Money for Digital Upgrades

Worcester County’s school superintendent is hitting up the community for money to speed up the process of getting a laptop or tablet into the hands of every student by 2018.

If Worcester schools can augment their budget with free community money, it will help them to “accelerate the pace” of being able to afford a device for every student, and will “help support innovation” across all schools, according to Superintendent Jerry Wilson.

“Certainly, we have money set aside that will help fund the digital conversion. But it’s about how you get there, and what the pace is,” Wilson said. “We’d like to be fully one-to-one by about 2018. With our current projection, it’s going to require additional funds.”

Wilson has been the driving force behind the newly-formed Worcester County Education Foundation, a 16-person committee of educators and citizens that will oversee fund-raising toward the process of what school leaders are calling a “digital conversion.”

They hope to implement the plan for incoming high school freshmen by fall 2015, which alone could cost $250,000. Wilson said for all 6,700 students, it could cost $3 million.

“Education is the most important thing our government and society does, and it needs all the help it can get,” said Greg Shockley, the foundation’s vice-chair. “This community’s always been generous; they’re generous every year when they pay their property taxes. The school board is well-funded, but we feel a need for this extra push.”

Classroom includes teacher pay, instructional materials, supplies, and equipment.
Shockley said a rough draft of their plan is for high school students to get a take-home laptop, middle school students to get some kid of laptop-tablet hybrid, and for elementary school students to use some kind of tablet on a sharing basis in class.

Their goal is to raise $1 million in the next year and $5 million over five years. They’ll need heaving hitters to reach that goal: the foundation’s pamphlet suggests levels of giving ranging from “honor roll” (up to $499) to “superintendent’s circle” ($100,000 to $1 million). They also suggest giving through annuities, wills, and trusts.

The foundation has already landed a $100,000 donation from Calvin B. Taylor Bank. That gift was announced early Tuesday at a breakfast, held at Stephen Decatur High School, a well-attended event that served as the foundation’s coming-out party.

About 76 percent of the school system’s $98 million budget comes from Worcester County. The rest is a mix of grants, federal funding, and state aid. But Worcester’s state aid, about $3,000 per pupil, is at the bottom. By comparison, top-funded Baltimore City gets more than $11,000 per pupil. Only Talbot County receives less state aid than Worcester.

“I’m not complaining about state aid,” Wilson said, “but when we look at what receive, we’re the second-lowest in the state. And there are good reason for that. But when it comes to our operating budget, that’s not a place we can go to look, for levels of funding (for devices).”

About 5 percent of the county’s budget comes from federal funding. Wilson said Worcester County schools have paid for “smart board” almost exclusively with federal and state grants technology. The school system has also saved about $200,000 by asking people to turn off lights in rooms not being used, Wilson said.

County Commissioner Jim Bunting, who attended Tuesday’s foundation announcement, said he has no problem with the school system seeking out private funding.

“I think it’s good the community supports the school system,” said Bunting, a Republican who represents the Bishopville district. “But I will say, we are definitely supporting our school system, way beyond the max. Sometimes I question the support we have given them. It seems a little ridiculous at certain times. My goal in the next four years is to really take a look at what we are spending on schools.”

Todd Ferrante, foundation chairman, said the goal is to prepare students for college and future career markets.

“Digital conversion is more than just buying computers for students,” he said. “It’s employing technology to improve teaching, through increased student engagement. It’s a curriculum and instruction project first, and a technology program second.”

Read full DelmarvaNow article here.

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