Accountability Oakland Tribune / Argus

Expensive Gift – Newark Unified faces costs of ‘super deal’

It was, in the words of a Sun Microsystems spokesman, a “super duper deal.”

Two years ago, the tech giant supplied the Newark Unified School District with 500 Sun Ray computers, software, and technical support – a deal that was touted as being worth $1 million a year – as part of a four-year, $250,000-a-year contract. Sun, which employs some 3,000 people in Newark, later donated an additional 700 Sun Rays and a year’s free training to Newark Unified.

“We’re making a very big investment in this market,” said Robert Iskander, Sun’s product development director for the K-12 market at the time.

The district, as it turns out, is making a big investment, too.

In the past two years, Newark Unified’s technology budget has swelled from $340,000 to about $1 million. In fact, the cash-strapped district will spend $1.3 million this year, including a $307,000 state grant to connect the Sun Rays and the district’s 1,800 IBM computers to a single “thin client” network.

The network, it is hoped, will end a litany of complaints about the Sun Rays from teachers and parents. Meanwhile, at least two members of the board of trustees have started to question the costs.

“If someone buys me a $50,000 car and it breaks down, do I just leave it on the road? Of course not,” said Michael Dodge, assistant superintendent of business for the district. “The board made a commitment to technology. You don’t turn around and walk away from it.”

The $1.3 million figure came to light after trustees Janice Schaefer and Ray Rodriguez asked district officials for an accounting of the technology costs.

“The grand total keeps going up,” Schaefer said.

“In my mind, I knew that $250,000 was not going to be a sum total,” she added. “Technology is not just hardware.”

And Schaefer’s husband, Jay, a technology professional and a member of the district’s technology committee, questions the practicality of the district’s investment. Systems the size of Newark’s, he says, typically cost $2 million a year to maintain.

“Their biggest sticker is they just don’t have the revenue streams to do it,” said Schaefer, former chief technology officer of a San Francisco company.

To go with the 1,200 computers, the district has spent $180,000 to purchase about 30 servers, at $4,500 each, and a $20,000 piece of software called Tarantella, which enables Sun Ray users to access Windows-based applications.

In addition, Ted Hashiguchi, the district’s technology director, still needs at least 10 more servers to complete the “thin client” project, Dodge said.

“They just don’t have the monies to get the staff in there and support this hardware,” Jay Schaefer said. “Ted’s doing a good job, but he’s stuck with what he’s got.”

The district cannot afford to give Hashiguchi much help. Trustees made $1 million in program cuts last June – including two full-time teaching
positions, a full-time administrative position and $66,000 each from the elementary science and English as a Second Language programs.

Trustees and district officials have said cuts were necessary for several reasons, including an across-the-board 10 percent raise two years ago, decreased enrollment and energy costs.

And trustees may have to make more cuts this year, after Dodge discovered a $464,000 error officials say happened under a former administrator.

Much of the technology money, Dodge points out, can’t be used for general fund purchases. For example, the district is propping up the technology budget with more than $400,000 of its annual lottery funds, most of which goes to the company that is maintaining the existing Sun network, Dodge said. Under state law, lottery money cannot be used for salaries, though it can be used for books and supplies.

Other costs this year include the annual payment to Sun, reduced to $125,000 after a subcontractor was unable to provide promised support, the “thin-client” project being covered by the state grant, and:

*$350,100 for salaries and supplies.

*$180,000 for purchasing Internet access from the county.

*$64,795 for a piece of records-keeping software enabling the district to
take attendance electronically, among other things.

In fact, of this year’s $1.3 million tech total, Dodge says only about $200,000 could have been spent differently.

Despite the costs, Dodge says the district is getting a bargain.

“They got like 50 percent off for servers. That’s unheard of,” he said.

“Some people have asked me, ‘Can’t we just quit?’ h e said. “ We have a million dollars worth of Sun equipment. You can’t just walk away from it. That would be like walking away from that car.”