Washington Apple Pi

A Community of Apple iPad, iPhone and Mac Users

The Future of Macintoshes in Fairfax County Schools

By Thomas Berens

Washington Apple Pi Journal, reprint information

Several weeks ago, I heard rumors that the Fairfax County School System was no longer buying Macintosh computers for its schools. This school system is, according to its web site, the 12th largest in the nation. As a taxpayer, I was concerned as to whether or not this was a wise use of taxpayers' money. As a Macintosh advocate, I was also concerned about the impact of this decision on future Macintosh home purchases throughout the county, since many parents base their computer purchases on what platforms their children are using in school. Finally, as a parent of two boys who are attending these schools, I wondered why the school system had not made a better effort to inform parents of this decision.

I brought up this topic at the August General Meeting of the Pi, and subsequently heard anecdotal evidence that these rumors were true. Although I volunteered to be a point of contact for anyone interested in pursuing this issue, I received no further information from any Pi members with firsthand knowledge of the situation.

So I decided to go to the source. I posted the following message on the Fairfax County Public School web site (www.fcps.k12.va.us):

I heard recently that Fairfax County schools will no longer be purchasing Macintosh computers. Is this true? If so, was this announced to the public at all? Many parents purchase home computers based on which computers are being used in the schools. Information like this should be made available to parents well in advance of classes starting.

I've heard that $1800 computers are being purchased, when $900 Macintoshes are available which could meet the same requirements. This seems like a waste of taxpayers money.

Was some sort of cost-benefits analysis done prior to making this decision? If so, could it be made available to the public?

Thank you for your time.

Within a few days, I received the following reply from Maribeth Luftglass, the Chief Information Officer, FCPS:

Several years ago our school system concluded that standardizing on a single desktop computer platform would provide greater benefit to our students in all grades. Because PCs are the most widely used platform in colleges and the business world, as well as in all FCPS high schools, and many elementary schools, it was decided that FCPS would only purchase PCs as either new or replacement equipment. At that time, all school system program managers and principals were made aware of this decision and were instructed to plan accordingly.

In June 2002, Dr. Domenech further implemented this decision based on current budget constraints and the positive impact support of one platform would provide to the overall school district. This transition to a single platform will not happen overnight. Both hardware and software support for the Macintosh will continue for the life of the Macintosh computers currently in our schools. We are reviewing our plans and guidelines to assist schools who choose to make the transition sooner rather than later. Currently, our educational contract pricing for our Hewlett Packard PC system configuration is $950 with warranty and maintenance, which is comparable to a similarly equipped Apple iMac.

Thank you for your interest in Fairfax County Public Schools. If you have any further questions, please let us know.

I decided to take her up on her offer to ask further questions. Below are my follow-up questions and her replies:

Q. Was a cost-benefit analysis made by the school system prior to arriving at the conclusion to standardize? If so, can it be made available to the public?

A. The Superintendent's decision several years ago to migrate to a single platform standard was made and supported by the FCPS Leadership Team (consisting of the leaders for instructional and administrative departments within FCPS) based on data supported and accepted by industry studies concluding that regardless of platform, standardizing on a single platform benefits an organization through increased economies of scale and consolidation of time, effort, and resources required for key operational components of the support and training organizations. The RFP and the award made in 1999 for the Hewlett Packard PC's are public records and available at the Fairfax County Purchasing and Supply Management Agency.

Q. Was any effort made to inform the parents of this plan? Don't you think parents should be informed of this fact so that they can purchase compatible computers for home use? At a minimum, shouldn't this be a topic for the "Back to School" orientations?

A. While our plan and strategy is to migrate to single platform, with over 65,000 existing computers in our schools, that vision will take many years. Each school has a different installed base of hardware. Therefore, we suggest that parents contact their individual school for information on their particular technology. Our school principals are our most valuable resource when communicating issues of this type to their parent organizations and communities. We rely on their expertise for communicating their school specific technology plans to their constituent communities as they feel is appropriate.

Q. By continuing hardware support, does that mean that RAM and/or hard drives will be purchased and replaced in the Macintoshes as needed? Will current software be upgraded?

A. Macintosh hardware support will continue on all models provided that the cost to repair does not exceed 80% of the total replacement value. Specifically, this would include failed or malfunctioning hardware such as the type you mention -- hard drives and memory with one caveat. The schools themselves are responsible for any memory or hard drive "upgrades." The amount of upgrades will be contingent on available local school funds. Macintosh software will continue to be supported including upgrades provided that schools follow normal purchasing procedures for ensuring proper licensing.

So there you have it. I won't bother critiquing the CIO's responses here; most of us have already heard these arguments and formed our own opinions, so I won't preach to the choir.

The good news is that the transition will not happen overnight. The bad news is that it will happen eventually, unless concerned parents and taxpayers get involved. If you are interested in helping with this issue, please email me at tberens@mac.com. If you think that the Pi should become more involved, then voice your concerns to the Pi officers. Finally, let your school officials know how you feel about this.

On the other hand, if you are a parent and you agree with the CIO's comments, then I suggest you start budgeting for a home PC.

Don't say you weren't warned.