While receiving additional money for schools is always a cause for celebration, it’s worth taking notice when a small group of people accept a grant that results in additional costs for the state’s taxpayers without that grant having been voted upon by an elected body. It’s also worth taking notice when, in fact, the grant is purposely structured in such a way to avoid the scrutiny of an elected body. Back in December, when everyone was applauding the $5 million grant the Gates Foundation made to Hartford Schools, I had a few questions, particularly about MAP testing, and the expense of its associated technology.

Because of a loophole in current policy that only requires that it vote to approve Federal and State grant applications, the Hartford Board of Education never agreed to apply for the Gates Foundation grant, or to approve it, even though the acceptance of the grant has an impact on Hartford Public Schools and, ultimately, the Connecticut taxpayer.

Superintendent of Schools Christina Kishimoto, Mayor Pedro Segarra (a self-appointed member of the school board), school board Chairman Matthew K. Poland (Director of the Hartford Public Library), and representatives from Jumoke Academy, Achievement First, ConnCAN, Achieve Hartford, and the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving met with the Gates Foundation to discuss the grant in the summer of 2012 without the full school board’s knowledge. In August, the board was asked to renew the contract for the Northwest Evaluation Association MAP program for two years at a cost of $592,443, or $11.50 per student. MAP, or Measures of Academic Progress, was piloted with the 9th grade last year, but this year was extended K-12. At the time the school board was asked to renew the contract with the rollout of the program, the source of funding was described as “special funds”, with no mention of the Gates grant.

The full board was only notified of the grant in October. But because the money is being administered through the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, which will receive $50,000 per annum of the three year grant period to manage it, the school board was not given the opportunity to vote on the matter despite the cost implications for Hartford Public Schools and state taxpayers.

One of my major questions regarding the Gates grant and the impact on HPS has to do with technology resources. According to the NWEA technology requirements, each student requires a workstation or client and these must have adequate and stable Internet connectivity for the test to be successfully administered. “NWEA requires a persistent connection to the wireless access point, free of interruptions, to successfully run Test Taker. Any outages in the connection, regardless of how brief, may cause errors during testing or require re-testing particular students.”

Although the Gates grant budgets $592,443 over the three-year period for license fees for NWEA computer adaptive assessments, there is a mere $34,500 budgeted for computers and equipment, and that goes to Achievement First for “Technology for Residency Program for School Leadership.” As far as HPS goes, there is zero in the grant for the implementation of any technology.

It took time to get answers from the state Board of Education — to be fair, the Sandy Hook shooting happened in the interim — but I was then referred to Diedre Tavera, the Executive Director of Strategic Planning and Development in the Office of Institutional Advancement, and Leslyee Frederick, Executive Director of Assessment and Intervention at Hartford Public Schools. According to Tavera, the adaptive untimed tests will be implemented three times a year in fall, winter and spring, with a one-month testing window for each. I asked Ms. Tavera and Ms. Frederick if HPS had sufficient technology resources to administer the tests without denying students access to school media center computers for researching projects — you know, the kinds of things that involve actual learning, rather than testing.

I was assured this was the case.

According to Ms. Frederick, “HPS has been planning for the MAP testing for three years including extensive training for teachers and administrators in order to ensure all were and are prepared for the administration. In addition we have conducted a technology readiness survey to determine the level of resources available in each school. Our goal is to ensure that all schools are fully resourced to implement the test during the testing period. Purchasing computers for the schools that are the most in need is an ongoing priority in the district. When dealing with technology, issues can and do come up. When that happens, we have a system in place for resolving the issue immediately. To date, we have had very few problems administering the test district-wide.”

Ms. Frederick continued, “In administering the test, schools are very creative in using the resources they have while ensuring there is little disruption for other students. Many students take the test in a dedicated computer lab, others take the test in their classroom using either classroom computers or laptops. Several schools have laptop carts that move from classroom to classroom allowing students to remain in their classroom to take the test. In year one of the test, we have been pleased with the results both in participation and how successful schools have been in administering the test. We continue to evaluate and plan for improvement.”

Something about “creative use of resources” sounded the alarm bells with me, particularly because I’ve been hearing concerns from media and technology specialist friends in wealthy school districts about having adequate resources to implement SBAC, the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium adaptive tests that will replace the CMT/CAPT in 2014-15. I put out feelers to teachers in the trenches to try and ascertain the picture. Most were not willing to go on the record for fear of retribution. But William Morrison, a social studies teacher at the Academy of Engineering and Green Technology at Hartford Public High School, painted a somewhat less-than-rosy picture in telling me that the testing was problematic because of bandwidth problems.

Another teacher at a Hartford magnet school told me the school’s Wifi is turned off during assessments in order to limit bandwidth to testing computers. This means students and teachers not taking the assessments cannot use tablet devices. Both of the school’s laptop carts are used for testing for 3-4 weeks, making them unavailable for student projects.

Given this, one has to wonder if it is acceptable for a private entity to accept a grant that will inevitably result in added costs for the public school system without a vote by the Board of Education? Hartford school board member Robert Cotto Jr. has raised a proposal to prevent this from happening.

School districts statewide should be cognizant of the major costs coming down the road to implement SBAC — particularly since the state is running a budget deficit. Greenwich Superintendent of Schools William McKersie sent a letter to parents and teachers this week detailing how Internet “access problems are now affecting daily instruction and undermining lesson plans and other educational activities” — and this is one of the state’s wealthiest communities. Let’s have a look at the requirements for SBAC:

“These tests include animations, technology-enhanced items, and other state-of-the-art functionality. The actual bandwidth demands will depend on the media included in the Smarter Balanced tests. For example, one English language proficiency test includes recorded audio and a speaking component, which captures oratory responses. This type of media can increase the bandwidth. We currently estimate that the Smarter Balanced assessment will require 10-20 Kbps per student or less. For basic calculations, consider the typical bandwidth draw of 10 Kbps and multiply by number of students for an estimate of bandwidth needs to deliver the assessment in its most intensive iteration. Therefore, 100
students assessing simultaneously could draw up to 1,000 Kbps (1 Mbps) as a reasonable estimate.”

Of course, that assumes no one else is using the bandwidth anywhere else in the school.

While we can only hope that the Mr. Gates has the best of intentions with his foundation’s education reform efforts, it can’t help but strike one that the tests for which the foundation is paying require upgrades to the most recent Microsoft products, and that Gates still owns — as of his latest Sec 4 Form 4 filing on10/29/12 — 440,984,209 shares of MSFT stock. As for his foundation’s interest in primarily funding “public” charter schools, perhaps it’s best explained by investor David Brain, of Entertainment Properties Trust in the following interview:

CNBC interviewer: “Why would I want to add charter schools into my portfolio?”

David Brain: “It’s a very stable business, very recession resistant . . . growing 12-14 percent a year . . . a public payer, the state is the payer on this category . . . a $2 1/2 billion opportunity annually.”

I have asked the State Department of Education for their estimates of how much it will cost to implement SBAC. I suggest legislators and local districts do the same, otherwise taxpayers will be left holding a very expensive baby.

Sarah Darer Littman is an award-winning columnist and novelist of books for teens. Long before the financial meltdown, she worked as a securities analyst and earned her MBA in Finance from the Stern School at NYU.

Sarah Darer Littman is a critically-acclaimed author of books for young people. Her latest novel, Some Kind of Hate, comes out Nov. 1 from Scholastic Press.

The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com or any of the author's other employers.