Last week, I like other parents in the Districted, an email message was sent out to Verona parents regarding the new 1:1 Chromebook program in the District. The email noted that District Policy 7523 School District Provided Technology Devices to Student/One to One Program had been revised and the District Policy 2363 Student Use of Privately-Owned Technology had been abolished. It also noted that starting with the 2022-2023 school year, for grades five through twelve the district-issued Chromebooks are deemed mandatory for the successful completion of the classroom curriculum. The notice also noted that personal laptops and tablets will no longer be permitted. It included a link to a new Chromebook Handbook that at the top of the first page noted it adhered to Policy 2361 and 7523.
Upon receiving this notice, I reviewed Policy 7523 and the most recent Board of Education meeting agenda. On the agenda, it was noted that first hearing of the revision of Policy 7523 was heard on July 19th, and although the first reading passed, the new proposed policy had not been adopted by the Board of Education. So, the Policy that is currently in place is the old policy that does not make Chromebooks mandatory. Although this may seem insignificant, one of the main functions of the Board of Education is to review and vote on new Board Policies. These policies are very important to the orderly operation of a school district. As an education attorney, I often review a board’s policy in analyzing a case because the policy is what governs the district and ultimately can determine the path an appeal or case may take. The approval or non approval of a Board policy is not an action to take lightly.
On August 15, 2022, another email message was sent to Verona parents. This one noted that Chromebook distribution would be on August 23, 2022, from 9:30 – 3:00 and that there was a mandatory insurance fee of $25 for each student’s Chromebook. There were several aspects of this email that was troubling. First, the link to Policy 7523 was the old 7523. The second issue was the mandatory insurance fee. If the intention of the school district is to make the use of school Chromebooks mandatory for the successful completion of classroom curriculum, then the Chromebooks, like a textbook, must be provided to students free of charge, even an insurance charge. This scenario was contemplated in a 2006 legal case R.H. obo M.H v. Pascack Valley Regional Board of Education. As part of the decision in that case the judge opined that “it is impermissible for schools to charge fees for activities that were an ‘integral part of classroom instruction’ meaning participation in the activities was mandatory for the successful completion of the classroom curriculum.” The opinion continues to state that “if the circumstances of this matter had indicated that the use of a computer were absolutely essential to M.H.’s successful completion of the classroom curriculum (i.e. mandatory participation), this court may decision differently.”
The use of the school provided Chromebook appears to be poised to be considered mandatory for the successful completion of the classroom curriculum. This is what was noted in the August 12, 2022 email and the proposed revision of the Policy 7523, although that has not yet been decided by the Board of Education.
Third, the email that was sent on August 15th does not in any way make a provision for members of the school community that cannot afford to pay the $25 fee. Also, the fee in this email is noted as $25 but in the Chromebook Handbook the fee is noted as $30. Before posting this, I reached out to both principals of the HBW Middle School and the new Superintendent. The Superintendent and one principal, Mr. Galbierczyk were off this week, and I have not heard from either. Mr. Lancaster responded to my inquiry regarding the mandatory insurance fee given that the mandatory nature of the Chromebooks for the successful completion of the classroom curriculum. I suggested that the fee be made voluntary but encouraged. I noted that the Board had not approved the new policy. I also noted that there is no information for parent who wish to seek a waiver for the fee due to economic hardship. The response I received included that the policy would be updated and that they wish to respect each family’s privacy but they hope any family that needs help will contact them. The response was disappointing to say the least. If families are not told they can seek a waiver or other assistance, how will they know to reach out to Mr. Lancaster or Mr. Galbierczyk.
Although this may be a small fee and an inconvenience as I cannot be part of the only household in Verona with two working parents that may not be able to come during the work day to pick up a Chromebook, it is an example of a lack of planning. The 1:1 device program is a good one and one that is past due in Verona, but the execution is problematic on several levels. It is also troubling because about one year ago, the District attempted to implement the same mandatory Chromebook policy only to repeal it just a few days prior to the start of the school year. The Board and Administration had an entire year to develop and vote on an appropriate policy and correctly implement the program. Instead, at the last minute, they implemented a program based on a policy that may not pass the Board and that includes mandatory fees that may not be legal.
As a member of the Board of Education, I will advocate for better communication with parents and the community about changes to policies and programs. I will advocate for better long and medium-term planning so that if there are changes to a program, the appropriate Board policies are implemented well before the program and for parents and the community to be informed well in advance of the program change.