Duluth confronts expensive reality of school tech push: obsolescence

Say what you will about the old-fashioned ways, but blackboards and chalk lasted longer in the schools than the newfangled technology that school districts embraced a decade or so ago.

In Duluth, “smart boards” were a focus of a $315 million plan to add more technology to the classroom. But there’s no such thing as “long range” in technology. It doesn’t take long to be obsolete.

The Duluth News Tribune reports today that most of the smart boards are now past their prime and will be phased out next year. There’s no money to upgrade the technology now.

Video security systems, computers, printers, projectors and classroom sound amplifiers that were all installed as part of the 2007 plan are also now outdated, the paper says.

Money designated for technology spending via state aid and property tax income is drawn from the same pot as textbook and equipment purchases, like snow-blowers. Less than $2 million is available in 2019 to cover all those needs.

Technology will get about 70 percent of that, said Peggy Blalock, the district’s finance manager. The tech department also receives about $700,000 in general fund money, along with some rebate cash, which amounted to $140,000 for the 2017-18 school year. The budget — which was $2.1 million in 2018 — will likely see a small increase for the 2018-19 school year, Blalock said.

That supports the district’s basic needs, including emergency communication, a computer for each teacher, internet access and some computers for student use. Consultants have told Smith a district of Duluth’s size should be spending twice that to keep current.

“It will take us 10 years to replace Smart Boards at the current pace,” Smith said, compared to a more typical 1-2 years.

Sure, we can suggest blackboards and chalk as a replacement, but kids aren’t going out to a blackboards-and-chalk world.

So school districts — and taxpayers — are going to have to confront an unexpected reality of the digital age.