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Computers dominate surplus sale

As technology becomes outdated, the school district ends up selling hundreds of items for a fraction of their original cost.

By BARBARA BEHRENDT, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 14, 2002


INVERNESS -- Four years ago, the school district decided to spend $8-million over a three-year period to buy more than 1,000 new computers and train teachers and technicians to keep everything in working order.

The result has been a student-to-computer ratio slightly better than the state average, a computer network consistent across the district, and an instructional force trained in the use of computers as both instructional and classroom management tools.

But there is another side to the equation, one that has been playing itself out in recent weeks in a humid warehouse behind the school district offices in Inverness.

Each morning, Monday through Thursday, workers have rolled up the large doors and invited the public in to pick over boxes and bins of old computer monitors, printers, disk drives and software.

The hardware, which cost hundreds of thousands of dollars when the district bought it just a few years ago, is being sold for a fraction of its cost, often $15 to $20 for a piece of equipment.

Last week, the School Board approved two separate lists of items to be sold as surplus, including computers originally worth nearly $300,000. One list is several pages of single-spaced columns naming old Apple and other computers and components, mostly from Citrus High School.

The district has always disposed of unneeded equipment through periodic surplus sales and even the most recent lists include a variety of nontechnology items.

For example, the lists approved for surplus on Tuesday include three school buses and eight Breathalyzer devices no longer needed by the law enforcement training program at the Withlacoochee Technical Institute.

But it is the computer equipment that has made recent surplus property lists uncharacteristically plump.

The district has made it a priority to begin cleaning out the school storage rooms and closets where old computer equipment has been stockpiled since the new technology began to arrive, according to James Hughes, the district's executive director for support services.

"It's a large organization so obviously we have a lot of equipment," Hughes said. "We need to be going through the process of getting them off our inventory."

While there is some central oversight on what items are declared surplus and sold, it is really the schools themselves that decide what should be disposed of as surplus.

That has raised some questions within the district and has resulted in some new rules in the last year.

The district now requires that once the school staff determines what it doesn't need anymore, a list of those unneeded items is distributed to other schools so that items can be shared if needed, Hughes said.

If no other school expresses interest within 30 days, the items can be declared surplus. Hughes said there are plans to add some of those items to the district's Web site to highlight them and possibly find them a new home in another district school.

The district is also taking steps to ensure that no private information goes out when a computer is sold to the public. Hard drives that might have carried private information, such as student records, must be erased or removed. A special mark is placed on the item saying that has been done, according to Mike Geddes, instructional technology coordinator.

The district allows employees to buy items at the surplus sales. There are no specific rules to prevent someone from determining that an item such as an expensive laptop computer or some other piece of equipment is no longer needed, then buying it themselves from the district at a surplus sale.

Hughes said he is confident that the school principals were making good decisions about what items were no longer needed. "We have to count on that," he said.

As far as the costs of disposing of such expensive items for so little, he said, "I think it's a matter of doing business these days and we just haven't cleared out this area for a while . . . . Now we're putting forth an extra effort."

There has been little if any public comment by the board members about the large amount of computer equipment being sold in recent months. Board member Carol Snyder said she wanted to know more from the staff about the safeguards built in to be sure good decisions were made about what to sell and how.

Geddes said the district has more than 3,000 instructional computers providing a student-to-computer ratio between 4 to 1 and 5 to 1. But schools have also stored much of their older technology, such as early Apple computers, for years. While some of the older items still can provide a tool for learning basic computer skills, much of that old equipment isn't very useful, he said.

When the district went through the technology upgrade, it standardized the system buying primarily Dell computers. Macintosh computers make up a tiny percentage of purchases now and are really only used when there is some specific reason such as for graphic arts programs in the high schools, Geddes said.

He also noted that some of the computers the district is disposing of may have been donated or acquired through ways other than purchases. And he also said that the original values as listed on the surplus sheets also reflect the higher costs such technology carried in the past.

The most up-to-date computers, like the ones the district has purchased in recent years, provide obvious advantages as teachers try to train students how to use the tools. Geddes and other school officials acknowledge that computers and technology may be good investments to instruct children, but they are poor investments monetarily because they are costly and become obsolete quickly.

The district's own technology plan requires replacement of computers every six to seven years, Geddes said. Some of the equipment in last week's surplus list was first placed in the district's inventory in the 1980s but much is dated within the past 12 years and only a very few items as recently as 1998 through 2001.

He added that he knows in the future, as the current crop of computers is ready for disposal and new technology is needed, it will again be hard to compete for capital dollars to make the purchases when those same funds pay for needed school construction and renovation.

"It's going to be a challenge competing with school construction needs, but technology is something that has been added on to what schools need to do," Geddes said. "It's a necessity. Every kid we educate in the Citrus County school system has got to leave the school system with some minimal level of technological skill."

-- Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or 564-3621.

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