Gov. Paul LePage considered shutting down Maine’s school laptop program last fall but was persuaded not to by his education commissioner.

Emails between Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen, his staff and the governor’s office indicate that LePage has been extremely skeptical of the program, known as the Maine Learning Technology Initiative, which buys laptops for all public middle school students and negotiates low prices for school districts to lease laptops for high school students. MaineToday Media obtained the emails as part of a public records request.

The state’s multi-year contract with Apple to supply, support and maintain tens of thousands of public school laptops and the networks they rely on expires this year. As Bowen and his staff last year prepared to put out a competitive bid for a new four-year contract, LePage told Bowen he was not convinced they should do so.

Emails show the governor was persuaded to allow the process to move forward only after being assured he could “shut the whole thing down” if he didn’t like the bids that came in.

The correspondence sheds new light on the weeks-long delay in announcing the winner of the new laptop contract this spring, as the governor’s office reviewed the bids. The delay — and the surprise announcement that school districts could choose from any of five proposals — has caused anxiety and confusion for schools, many of which already had their budgets set.

LePage announced April 27 that he had selected a proposal centered around a Windows-based Hewlett-Packard laptop to replace what has been an Apple-based program. However, he also said schools could choose from four other rival bids — including Apple’s iPad and Macbook proposals — but would have to pay out of pocket for any costs above and beyond those of the HP laptop.

Fresh confusion on cost

Confusion has persisted about what the end costs will be for schools, making budgeting and planning difficult. On Friday and Saturday, the Department of Education surprised school districts by telling them they would have to pay tens of thousands of dollars in networking costs that the state now funds.

Technology officials at local school districts said the state previously had covered the networking costs at high schools that bought into the laptop program, and that department officials repeatedly had said this would still be the case under the new contract. They say the department revised that position in emails they received Friday and Saturday, effectively making districts who choose iPads pay an additional $18.09 per student.

“This definitely came as a surprise,” said Andrew Wallace, director of technology at the South Portland school department, who said the change increases his district’s costs by $55,000 a year. “It will definitely have a serious impact on our budget and is completely unexpected this late in the game.”

“All the documentation we had indicated that there wouldn’t be any network costs at the high school level,” said Dean Emmerson, director of information technology at RSU 1, in the Bath area. “Now we have to struggle to find $13,000 because our (school) budget can’t be increased at this point.”

Crystal Priest, district technology coordinator for SAD 4 in the Guilford area, said the change was unexpected and “puts a monkey wrench” into their budgetary and professional planning. “At this point, we don’t even know when we’ll get the machines for teachers or even if student machines will be available at the start of the school year,” she said.

Administration officials said their position has been consistent and that school districts planning to use iPads in their high schools should have been expecting to pay additional network costs.

“We recognize and appreciate the fact that communities are making their budget decisions, and it is why DOE staff has worked to answer questions and will continue to ensure that districts have the information they need to choose the best path forward for their students,” said LePage’s spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett.

On Friday the department also announced that HP had improved its offer and would ship its ProBook 4440s with a faster processor and more memory, although hard drive capacity will be reduced.

Education Department spokeswoman Samantha Warren said contracts with HP, Apple, and CTC were still being finalized, “a process we hope to wrap up in June.”

In preparing for contract bidding last year, she said, “there was a healthy thoughtful dialogue both internally at the department and with the Governor’s Office as to what would be best for Maine students and taxpayers.” The laptop program, she said, “needed to offer flexibility and that the solution needed to better align with the business world our (schools) are preparing students for.”

LePage opposed laptop program

Emails acquired through public records requests show that LePage has been skeptical of the laptop program, which Gov. Angus King introduced more than a decade ago. Bowen had to convince him of its value.

“The governor gets digital learning but is not convinced the MLTI program is needed for that, as he sees digital learning mostly in terms of distance learning,” Bowen wrote last July to Jeff Mao, the department official who oversees the program. “I think if we can develop a strong plan here, we have a chance with him. If not, you don’t need to bother working on the (request for proposals) for MLTI. He is not convinced it is making a difference.”

On Nov. 2, a week before the request for proposals was scheduled to be sent out, Bowen sent the governor a three-page pitch to let the program continue.

“I know you are not convinced that the laptop program is a worthwhile program,” Bowen wrote, but urged him that it should “continue in some form.”

Bowen argued that by buying in bulk, the program reduced costs for taxpayers, as schools would need to buy computers one way or another, and that the program was getting the state “a good bang for the buck.”

“I get what you are saying about issues with students becoming too reliant on technology and the example you use of having to close Marden’s when the lights go out because nobody can make change,” Bowen added, but said that was more a result of “the overall ineffectiveness of the education system” than the technology itself, which was now as essential to schools as “electricity and heat.”

Bowen said he was not satisfied with how the program was being implemented within the classrooms, noting that it needed to be made “far more about the kids than about the grown-ups, who, in the districts where good things are NOT being done, are the biggest problem.”

The governor sent his memo back three days later, apparently with handwritten notes. MaineToday Media has not obtained a copy of the governor’s reply, but in Bowen’s response he references the governor having indicated “that he does not favor continuing the program as is,” leaving the commissioner asking “does he want the state to have any role with regard (to) a statewide bulk-purchase of laptops, even if we just then make them available to districts to purchase with their own funds?”

Bowen also warned that if Maine dropped the current model, it would make technology unaffordable for poorer school districts and “make it hard for many districts to implement digital learning effectively.”

The commissioner also argued strenuously that the governor should allow them to move forward with the request for proposals “and see what kinds of bids we get back.” He noted it “commits us to nothing” and if “we’re not happy with the bids, we can shelve the whole thing then.”

“Let’s find out what (we) might be able to do with this program before we shut it down completely,” he wrote, an argument that apparently won the day.

The emails are among more than 1,000 pages of correspondence acquired via public records requests. Some of the emails were requested by the Maine Education Association — a teacher’s union that opposes much of LePage’s education agenda — and provided to MaineToday Media.

Bennett said Tuesday that LePage “was interested in learning more about the MLTI program and had multiple conversations with Commissioner Bowen relative to the best approach moving ahead with it.” She said the governor “has specific concerns with non-Windows systems” but “understands that the majority of systems used by businesses are Windows-based.”

However, emails indicate that LePage long wanted to get schools to replace their Apple computers with Windows-based ones.

In December 2011, Bowen wrote LePage to respond to a comment “regarding moving to Microsoft Windows-based laptops” for the program. Bowen explained that they were then in the middle of a multiyear contract with Apple, so “can’t make any changes to the existing program right away.”

Bowen advised LePage that they would issue a new request for proposals — or RFP — in late 2012. “I will check with the (attorney general’s) office, but I don’t think we can specify in the RFP which operating system the machines would have,” he wrote. “I think we lay out what we want the machines to do for kids and schools, and the bidders will come forward with whatever solution they have.” Apple and other vendors “would complain that we were not conducting a truly open bid if we say the machines have to run a Windows operating system,” he added.

Lepage ultimately chose the Windows-based HP laptop even though it was more expensive and had been scored significantly worse than the Apple iPad bid by the education department’s bid evaluators. He noted it was the lowest-priced Windows option, and that Windows is “commonly used in the workplace in Maine” and therefore should be the technology students use.