AUGUSTA – The Maine Department of Education has chosen Hewlett-Packard as its preferred contractor to purchase tens of thousands of laptops for middle school students, even though the company was not the cheapest option or the top choice in terms of quality by a multistate committee appointed to study the matter.

The decision, announced Saturday by the office of Gov. Paul LePage and the Department of Education, also ends the state’s long-standing exclusive contract with Apple, which has provided the state with equipment since Maine’s school laptop program began in 2002.

The naming of a preferred contractor was weeks overdue, and anxiously awaited by school district officials, who said the delay was interfering with their budgeting process for the 2013-14 academic year. A decision was initially expected by late February or March. The governor’s office had to approve the contract before it could be awarded.

At $254 per device, the HP ProBook 4440, running Windows 8 software, will be made available to schools this fall through the Maine Learning Technology Initiative. Previously, Maine contracted with Apple, which uses a different operating platform, and students currently use MacBook laptops.

Maine’s school districts still will have the option of going with one of the other four computer devices that have been approved for the program. If they do so, the state will provide up to $254 — the cost of a HP ProBook — toward the purchase price of the alternate device.

The state will pay an additional cost of about $31 for installation, maintenance and service, bringing the total cost to about $285 per “seat,” or user, in the network. The current total price is $271. The state also pays for computing devices for middle school teachers.

In addition, the state picks up the cost for high school teacher laptops and network charges. School districts may also buy laptops for high school students through the program, in which about half of the districts currently participate.

“This is the lowest-priced proposal,” LePage said of the HP ProBook in announcing the decision on Saturday.

But the Hewlett-Packard proposal was not the cheapest among five semifinalists recommended by a committee appointed to rank the proposals. Nor was it the top choice.

Apple’s 32-gigabyte iPad tablet, at $217 per device, was ranked both the cheapest and the highest-quality option recommended by the committee, whose members are from Maine, Hawaii and Vermont. The iPad scored the highest with 93 out of 100 points, while the HP ProBook earned 79 points, ranking fourth out of five.

The other choices were the Apple MacBook Air, the HP ElitePad Tablet and the 2go Convertible Classmate NL4 by CTL.

LePage’s spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, said the governor meant that the ProBook was the cheapest laptop among the choices. However, the state was considering proposals not just for laptops but for other computer devices as well, including tablets, in deciding on the contract.

This is the first year that all three states, hoping to obtain lower prices, banded together to negotiate a contract. Collectively, the contracts may be worth more than $200 million.

Maine was the first state to provide laptops to all of its seventh- and eighth-graders. Today, the program costs about $14 million a year. Districts that provide laptops in other grades pay for the computers themselves.

In making the announcement Saturday, LePage said it is important for students to use technology that they will see and use in the workplace. He said the Hewlett-Packard operating system is the one most commonly used in Maine businesses.

The decision baffled some school technology directors, who said they will probably recommend staying with Apple products because of the costs associated with switching to a new operating platform.

Crystal Priest, technology coordinator for SAD 4, which includes Guilford, Sangerville, Parkman, Cambridge and Wellington, said Saturday she will recommend that her school district stick with Apple. She said the Apple iPads offer a richer educational experience, and that there are training costs associated with moving to a new system.

“From a purely technical point of view, the HP is a less robust network than the one we currently have. It will not handle the traffic as well,” said Priest.

Jef Hamlin, technology director at RSU 34, which includes Old Town, Alton and Bradley, praised the decision. He said the HP option is cheaper once the hidden costs that come with Apple products are added in.

For example, Apple iPads do not come with keyboards, so the district would have to buy them in order to use the devices to administer standardized tests, he said.

“In general, the consensus is the iPad is a kind of a ‘gee whiz’ thing, but there is a lot of stuff you can’t do with an iPad,” said Hamlin, who added that his district already uses Hewlett-Packard computers in some of its elementary schools.

Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen said the laptop program makes learning relevant.

“MLTI devices are as good as the teaching that goes with them,” he said in a statement Saturday.

Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at:

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