February 21, 2014 at 1:00 am

Divisive Grosse Pointes school bond nears decision day

Defer Elementary School student Vivian Leech uses a Nook tablet. The bond issue would help buy more. (Max Ortiz / The Detroit News)

Voters in the Grosse Pointe Public Schools will decide Tuesday whether to approve a $50 million bond issue that has sparked fierce debate over technology needs and spending in one of the state’s most upscale districts.

The 10-year bond issue would pay for a fiber optic network and new computers, laptops and tablets districtwide — creating a 1:1 ratio for the first time — and upgrade school security with modern telephones and camera systems.

The Grosse Pointe proposal is among funding questions in six metro school districts and one local library millage on suburban ballots Tuesday.

District officials and supporters stress that the Grosse Pointe bond — which will cost the owner of a $200,000 home (taxable value of $100,000) about $229 a year in taxes — is not about technology alone, but about how technology will support instruction.

Critics say the district is asking for too much money for improvements that may quickly become obsolete.

Parent Marlene Pierce has a third-grade son in the district and is voting no on the bond.

Pierce says the security updates are unnecessary and the existing Wi-Fi should satisfy the needs of teachers and students.

“I see no reason to hard-wire the buildings; everything should be Wi-Fi. Everyone is going to the Cloud. No one is doing servers anymore. It will be obsolete,” she said.

Pierce says she owns several rental properties and can’t afford the financial hit.

“It’s way too big — they are taking on too much debt. ... It’s a pretty hot-button issue,” she said. “I hope they come back with a better idea. I want the best for my kid and this bond isn’t right.”

The district wants to spend $16.9 million on devices — desktops, laptops and tablets for teachers, students and staff; $5.1 million on security upgrades in buildings and $15 million on technology infrastructure improvements. The rest of the bond money will cover miscellaneous costs and services.

Geoff Fletcher, deputy executive director of the nonprofit State Educational Technology Directors Association said the disconnect between today’s classroom technology needs and what previous generations had drives much of the debate over bond requests.

“In general, oftentimes people assume the education experience they had when growing up is sufficient for kids today. It worked for them, they were successful. ‘Why can’t kids have the same experience we have?’ ” Fletcher said.

Yet if people take a look at how they now bank, buy books and book airline tickets, they could see how other aspects of society have moved into the digital age.

“What’s happening now is this shift from print to digital is lagging behind what’s happening in society,” Fletcher said. “It’s starting to catch up in education.”

Gary Abud, a science teacher at Grosse Pointe North High School, says classrooms should mirror the workplaces of today and the future.

“When my parents and grandparents were in classrooms, the tools were effective for what they needed. In today’s world, all around us is technology — we shop, consume new, make transitions — all using technology,” said Abud, who is Michigan’s 2013 Teacher of the Year.

“In the same way, we need to be able to mirror that in classrooms and prepare them for leaving school,” Abud said.

Students are allowed to bring in their own devices to Abud’s room, but most use different types, and some don’t have any at all.

At North, 1,300 students share 150 computers. Teachers often sign up weeks or months ahead of time to reserve room in the labs.

“The move toward a technology bond will close the digital divide,” Abud said. “We don’t have equity and access right now. There aren’t enough computers.”

Brendan Walsh, a former board member who has a background in information technology, agrees a case can be made for technology upgrades. Yet he opposes the bond because he says it raises the district’s tax rate by 23 percent and invests money on equipment that has a short life cycle.

“There is a reasonable case for some amount of technology but not the amount they aregoing for,” Walsh said.

Chris Profeta, who has a daughter starting kindergarten this fall in the district, said the $50 million cost gave him pause.

“The price for me was the one sticking point. All the ideas sounded great and every time I heard them (the board) talking about technology, I said that’s amazing. I would love for that to happen here,” said Profeta, who is on a committee supporting approval of the bond.

The $15-20 extra a month in his tax bill would be tough for him to digest, Profeta said. But his parents, long-time residents of the district, helped him make up his mind.

“They were worried about the taxes but they are more worried about selling the house if young families are not coming because the schools are declining,” he said.

jchambers@detroitnews.com
(313) 222-2269

The $50 million bond issue would pay for a fiber optic network and new ... (Max Ortiz / The Detroit News)