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City plans to give Franklin school money for student laptops

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Next school year, Franklin Community High School will join the list of local schools giving their students their own computers.

The Franklin Redevelopment Commission approved buying laptops for each of the high school’s nearly 1,700 students. Franklin will join more than 3,000 students at Center Grove, Indian Creek and Edinburgh high schools who also use taxpayer-funded laptop computers or devices such as iPads to watch lectures, type papers or email classmates and teachers.

The city board will have to give a final approval in March to spend about $500,000 on Google Chromebook laptops. Members of the board approved buying the laptops 4-1, with board member B.J. Deppe saying the expense was not an appropriate use of the board’s tax funds. The money will come from the city’s tax-increment financing, or TIF, districts. Those taxing districts collect property taxes from new development and set aside the money for economic development. The funds go to the redevelopment commission, and schools and other local governments don’t get a portion of those taxes.

The purchase is the second time in the past year the city redevelopment commission has provided funds to Franklin schools. Last summer, the city gave about $100,000 to help pay for security upgrades at schools inside the city limits.

School officials said the laptops will give students more experience working with technology and provide more opportunities to work on digital assignments, write papers or collaborate with classmates on projects over the Internet. The money will allow the school district to get the first batch of laptops to launch the program, while replacement computers and maintenance would be paid for with textbook fees and money provided by the district.

Franklin schools asked for the tax funds because the district has extremely limited funds available for new projects because of property tax caps, which limit the amount of taxes local governments can collect. The district lost $3.4 million in taxes because of the caps last year. Since the school district is required to make debt payments first out of the money raised from taxes, the school has had to put off other expenses such as maintenance and building repairs, replacing buses or adding new technology, Franklin schools chief financial officer Jeff Mercer said.

“When we say yes to that ($3.4 million), we say no to technology,” he said.

Chromebooks were picked because they have a keyboard and a wide selection of Google software that students could use to look up information or work on projects.

The Chromebooks cost about $300 each and are less expensive than Apple iPads, which are used in Center Grove and Indian Creek schools. The laptops will allow students to work on more writing projects, which is something teachers will focus on once students have the computers, technology director Matt Sprout said. He will try to negotiate with vendors to get a lower price for the new laptops.

The school district will spend about $375,000 to purchase laptops for staff and software this year, Franklin Superintendent David Clendening said. The school district would like to expand the program to include the middle school within two years and provide laptops to every student down to third grade by 2020, he said.

School officials hope the laptops will allow teachers to try out new teaching methods such as the flipped classroom, where students watch lecture videos at home and spend class time working on assignments when a teacher is available to help, Sprout said. Franklin has encouraged students to bring their own devices to school, but about 10 percent of students currently don’t have regular access to a computer or Internet at home, he said.

Some school districts have seen rapid improvements in test scores after giving computers to every student, he said. In Bluffton in northeast Indiana, ISTEP scores improved by 18 percent after that district invested in new technology, Sprout said.

The laptops also would allow the high school to switch to digital textbooks, so instead of paying fees to rent paper math or history books that wear out and become dated, those texts would be loaded onto the laptop. The annual textbook fees paid by families would then be used for replacing laptops every three to four years. The district hasn’t figured exactly what parents would pay in fees. Whether that amount goes down would depend on the price the school gets when it orders the laptops, Clendening said.

Redevelopment commission members approved the purchase although another city board was skeptical about the proposal. Four Franklin City Council members spoke against using TIF money to buy the laptops during a meeting earlier this month. Those council members said they would help pay for something that had a more direct economic benefit, such as buying machinery where students could get training that would help them get a job at a local factory after graduation.

Richard Wertz and Rob Henderson, who are members of both the city council and the redevelopment commission, supported the proposal Tuesday after getting more information about the cost and how it will benefit students.

“This is one of the steps I feel would allow our community to have better jobs, a better quality of life,” Wertz said.

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