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The $1.45 million the Federal Communications Commission will give Richmond’s school system through its Emergency Connectivity Fund, established to help schools and libraries pay for necessary technology to enhance virtual learning, is now being questioned behind the scenes by some. One of them is the board’s vice chair Jonathan Young, who represents the 4th District, and who expressed worry about adding to the stock of idle Chromebooks.

The Richmond School Board was informed three months ago that the district had enough Chromebooks to give each kid a laptop “for years to come.” The board has now been informed that Superintendent Jason Kamras’ team intends to purchase at least 4,000 additional Chromebooks using a recently approved federal grant. According to the board’s policy manual, a vote is still required for the award to be approved.

Highlights

  • “We will wait as long as possible to purchase new Chromebooks using this funding and have until December 2023 to do so,” Mr. Stanley added. Chromebooks have been a sore subject for RPS in the wake of a scathing audit issued in June. The audit found nearly 11,000 laptops had never been properly recorded in inventory and could not be located, and at least 1,700 more had walked away with students who left the school system.

  • He questioned devoting all the funds to that purchase, when grants from the fund can be used to meet a host of technology needs, such as strengthening broadband service to student homes or ensuring better access to wireless service. In his view, the administration’s focus on buying more laptops appears to represent a disregard for “good stewardship of taxpayer dollars.” In response to a Free Press query, RPS spokesman Matthew Stanley stated, “as with all technology, there a life cycle, and we will have to replenish the Chromebooks over time.

Aside from about 6,300 laptops that were provided to staff and school computer labs, the Chromebooks acquired since 2020 were purchased to be distributed to students from pre-K to 12th grade, according to June report to the board. The total was far more than were needed for the estimated 21,500 students, the audit noted. At that point, Michelle Hudacsko, RPS chief of staff, told the board that TIG had nearly 9,000 unused laptops in its inventory, not including an undetermined stockpile of laptops being stored at schools.

According to the internal audit, Richmond has purchased more than 44,000 Chromebooks since 2019, with the largest number, nearly 37,000, purchased since March 2020 when the pandemic struck and schools went virtual for two years. Since March 2020, RPS paid $12.6 million — or $362 per laptop — to its technology vendor, Technology Integration Group (TIG), for the laptops and other costs associated with linking students to the school division’s virtual classrooms.

The TIG inventory included 6,981 new and repaired laptops and 2,000 laptops awaiting repair. Based on the audit, as part of the payment to TIG, each laptop is configured for use with RPS data, gains asset tags, appropriate licenses, a tracking signature and other add-ons. Ms. Hudacsko also told the board that Google, Chromebook’s maker, routinely updated the software so that all of the working laptops in inventory awaiting assignment had the most up-to-date operating system.

Ms. Houdacsko told the board in June that new steps were being taken to improve inventory control, but no information has been made public on how well those steps are working. The bottom line: RPS has yet to provide detailed information on how many computers are available or make public its schedule for replacing the existing equipment over time.

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