Sentry Insurance Continues to Fund Laptops, Devices for Students
Board Discussion of Sentry Grant Marred by Inadequate Communication From Superintendent, Says One Board Member
Left, School Board Member Jeff Presley objected to Superintendent Attila Weninger altering Phase 1 of a Sentry grant without board approval. (City-Times photo)
By Donnelly Clare and Brandi Makuski
The Stevens Point School Board this week approved an agreement with Sentry Insurance to continue the district’s 1:1 initiative- a program which puts a laptop into the hands of every public high school student for educational use.
The Stevens Point- based insurance giant initially offered over $4 million for phase one of the program, which lasted four years and has been rallied by district leaders as a great success. Phase 2, which brings the district a $2.76 million Sentry grant, involves continuing the 1:1 initiative for high school students for another three years, but also includes funding for tablets, laptops and other devices for elementary and junior high students as well as teachers beginning next school year.
According to district documents, devices should be available at a ratio of 1:3 in elementary schools for students in second grade and up, and by including repurposed devices, the 1:1 initiative would be expanded to the junior high level, though students in grades 2-8 wouldn’t be allowed to remove the devices from school property.
But before those new devices can work, Director of Technology Brian Casey said the district’s bandwidth needed to be upgraded, which required additional grant funding for phase one.
“Bandwidth is the currency of IT (Internet technology),” said Casey, who added work on increasing the bandwidth was about 50 percent complete in the district. “Without it, there’s no point to having the new devices- they would be worthless.”
Casey said the increased infrastructure should boost the district’s bandwidth to about 40 GB- ten times what it now has- within the next few years.
The grant will also cover the cost of hiring three technology integration specialists to train district teachers, and while Casey said the district would pay for a fourth specialist, he added the district didn’t know the cost related to that expense.
“You’ll have one (technology specialist) at SPASH, one at each of the junior highs, and then one for all the elementary schools, so that’s a big job,” Casey said. “And you can’t set a specific amount, because who we hire will be based on their qualifications. You could take an average teacher salary as a guess, but that’s all it would be.”
Casey said the four specialists would train teachers onsite during early release days, in-service days and other school time as agreed to by the teachers and the district.
“All the research out there talks about the need for pre-training. It’s not just using the device, it’s using the device in the classroom. The district has technology standards and we need to be able to train teachers how these devices can be integrated into a school setting,” he said.
Board Members all agreed the move was a good one despite changes they were asked to retroactively approve for the phase one agreement. Superintendent Attila Weninger said about $165,000 was left over from phase one, which prompted officials from Sentry to offer $207,000 in additional grant funding just for that phase of the project.
“They asked us, ‘What is your greatest need?’, and we said upgrading our infrastructure,” Weninger said. “In our conversations with Sentry they said aside from what they’d give us in phase 2, (they’ll give) $207,000 additional dollars to upgrade so we could do phase 2, because then you’ll have the infrastructure prepared.”
But Board Member Jeff Presley wasn’t satisfied with that explanation, saying any changes should have been subject to board approval before amendments to the phase one agreement were implemented.
“At the end of the day I appreciate Sentry putting up the money- I want to make that clear,” Presley said. “What I don’t appreciate is the fact that this board, and me personally, is making a decision after it’s already been made by the administration. It takes away what this Board of Education’s responsibility is: managing the finances of this district and deciding how those dollars are spent. I have a real issue with this because this is what we were elected, or appointed, for so when we sit on this board, we make those decisions.”
Weninger said his office did notify the board “several times” of the addition to the phase one agreement, and he felt approving the changes without board approval were within his authority and was done to speed the process along.
“We didn’t feel it necessary to bring that to the board because they (Sentry) tacked it on to phase one, and they said, ‘Go do the infrastructure work’,” said Weninger. “I felt it was within our purview, as your administrator, to prepare for phase 2 and get this infrastructure work done because Sentry was providing the funds as a tack-on to phase one. I understand your point, Jeff, I’m just saying in the interest of efficiency, time and moving along to phase 2, that’s what we decided to do.”
Presley also questioned Sentry’s involvement in the upgrading process and why the contract wasn’t subject to an RFP (request for proposal) and bidding process. He said he’s asked for copies of emails, faxes and other correspondence between the district and officials from Sentry to determine how the agreement and it’s parameters were reached.
“I was told I wasn’t entitled to see those emails,” Presley said. “We are a public institution; we do not hide information. Saying I’m not entitled to emails sent to this district is incorrect.”
Presley also said he would ask the board to make a formal request to see correspondence between Weninger, Casey and officials from Sentry and if necessary, hire a lawyer to obtain the documents.
Casey admitted the grant was offered with certain caveats outlined by Sentry, but added nearly all grants come with specific stipulations. The district has a history of working with Sentry’s IT department, Casey said, and since they came up with the plan for upgrading the district’s infrastructure no RFP was required.
“What we’re trying to do here is for the good of the students,” Casey told the board. “I’m not trying to make it appear that we’re doing anything underhanded- it was a complicated procedure to make this happen. We’re very lucky to have a donor that’s willing to give us the money. We had to work within those parameters, and I don’t feel we’re trying to withhold information. I’ll provide you with anything I can, but we have to work with Sentry as well, though.”
Weninger said Presley wasn’t specifically denied copies of the correspondence.
“Sentry has a very strict policy regarding the confidentiality of their email correspondence. I’ve not asked Sentry if they’re willing to waive that disclaimer; but we can certainly make that request on the part of the board,” Weninger said.
“It’s sad I have to talk about this because it’s a great project. This is a lifelong partnership with Sentry. I want to make sure we do it right,” Presley said.