The governing board of the Partnership For Connecticut voted unanimously via teleconference Tuesday morning to spend $24 million on the purchase of 60,000 Dell laptops for high school students in the state, the first wave of which will be delivered to students in May.
The move marks the partnership’s first major expenditure since its formation was announced almost exactly one year ago. It saves millions of dollars off the expected price and, at a time when laptops are in high demand, could be faster than what a straight government purchase would bring.
Although the effort is a response to the COVID-19 coronavirus public health crisis, which has sidelined students throughout the state for the foreseeable future, philanthropist Barbara Dalio said the speedy purchase and delivery of computers to the most vulnerable high school students in Connecticut is exactly the kind of thing the partnership — and her private efforts before that — were designed to do in the first place.
“I find it really really exciting because we’ve been working with these students who are disengaged and disconnected for about five years, and we really feel for them and we know that if they get extra attention and extra help from the teachers, that they can thrive and they can graduate from high school,” Dalio said. “This is really an incredible opportunity if we know how to handle it and go with it and make the most out of it.”
The partnership, a public private-partnership formed with $100 million from Dalio Philanthropies and $100 million from state coffers was announced to great fanfare as well as scrutiny on April 5, 2019. Organizers hope to raise an additional $100 million from other donors.
Mary Anne Schmitt-Carey, the Partnership’s CEO, is expected to submit a purchase order for the laptops later Tuesday, ensuring the first 15,000 laptops will be delivered in May. Another 30,000 will be delivered in June and the final 15,000 will be delivered in July.
Raising concerns over the cost of the purchase, House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, a member of the governing board, wondered if the purchase and delivery of laptops after the end of the school year went against the intended purpose of the purchase as a response to the coronavirus-related school closures.
“If we could physically go carry the laptops to the students tomorrow, I promise you we would do that,” Schmitt-Carey said in response to Klarides’ question. “Being able to get this delivery schedule is extraordinary and it’ll help be able to facilitate learning opportunities over the summer and next year. It’s just a practical impossibility to get them sooner, but I don’t think that negates the need to get them and deliver them as quickly as we can.”
A similar process carried out by the state or individual school districts might have taken months simply to complete the bidding process. That highlights the efficacy of the public-private partnership model — which has come under some criticism for funneling taxpayer money into a new organization operating on a hybrid of public and private rules.
Demand for laptops and other mobile technology is high right now as millions of people attempt to work and attend school from home as a result of the public health crisis. Private companies have been forced to prioritize technology purchases for public safety, public health and then public education purchases.
Klarides and Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney, D-New Haven, also questioned the omission of the Norwich Free Academy from the list of eligible schools. Norwich Free Academy, though it is part of an alliance district, is not designated an alliance district high school, and therefore was left off the list.
Gov. Ned Lamont and state Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona established the “Learn From Home” task force co-chaired by Guilford Superintendent Paul Freeman and East Hartford Superintendent Nate Quesnel to lead the “safe, efficient and timely distribution of the laptops.”
In a letter to the partnership’s board of directors over the weekend, Schmitt-Carey said the partnership is receiving a 63 percent discount off the list price for Dell’s Latitude 3190 Education 2-in-1 laptop. The laptops will come preloaded by Dell with the programs and security features the students need, and the company is providing support services to IT departments throughout the state free of charge.
Dell has said the selected laptops are highly durable and expected to last at least five years.
Once distributed, the laptops will become the property of the school systems. Students will keep the laptops for the duration of their high school careers and return them once they graduate. School systems will be responsible for the maintenance, storage and replacement of the laptops as needed.
Dalio, who lives in Greenwich, said school systems have indicated the cost of upkeep won’t likely be a problem, as the biggest barrier to entry for districts was the startup cost of going from no technology to fully-digital.
Although the purchase was prompted by a public health crisis, Dalio said she believes this will change the way education happens on a permanent basis.
“Hopefully by five years from now, all of the kids will have computers, it will be just part of the curriculum and materials that they must have, not just in Connecticut, but all over the states,” she said.
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