In a special-called joint meeting Thursday night, the Birmingham Board of Education and the Birmingham City Council approved a plan to distribute 1,000 laptops to students in a pilot program in at least one school.
Last month the Birmingham City Council gave Mayor Larry Langford permission to buy 15,000 XO laptops from the non-profit, One Laptop Per Child, but the school board balked at the offer. Board members said that they had not been consulted on the computer program. The computer program was being forced on them without their asking for it, board members said.
Thursday night, Council President Carole Smitherman apologized to the school board for disparaging comments coming from City Hall. She did not specify who made the comments, but last month Mayor Langford blasted the board for not even being able to collect money at high school basketball games.
The mayor's office proposed including the school board after another plan politically imploded. Langford originally proposed giving control of the project to the Birmingham Education Initiative, a authority created and appointed by the mayor. BEI was thrown into chaos after its point-person, John Katopodis, was criticized for his role in a previous computers-for-students non-profit he created with Langford. In a lawsuit in state court, records showed that Katopodis used Computer Help for Kids bank accounts for personal expenses and shuffled funds among other charities he controlled.
The pilot program will test the system's ability to incorporate the laptops into classrooms and identify fiscal and logistical problems.
The school system has estimated that setting up Glen Iris Elementary for the pilot program would cost as much as $30,000. Board member Phyllis Wyne questioned whether the $500,000 promised to the school system by the city would be enough to wire all 31 schools for the program.
The mayor's office had proposed giving the computers to all students in the Birmingham schools, but Councilor Royal pointed out Thursday night that the funding is not enough to pay for that many computers. The city has agreed to buy 15,000 XO laptops from OLPC for $3,000,000. There are approximately 28,000 students enrolled in Birmingham schools - 13,000 more students than computers.
Board member April Williams proposed that the system limit the program initially to kindergarten through fifth grade. In the future, the city might be able to give more sophisticated computers to older students, Royal said.
Several school board members expressed uncertainty and concern about the program.
Board member Virginia Volker questioned whether the proposed pilot was truly a pilot program. Volker asked whether it was the city's intention to distribute the remaining 14,000 laptops, no matter if the pilot system succeeded or failed. Neither the council nor the mayor's representative gave a clear answer. Langford did not attend the meeting.
"I think he should be here to answer his own questions," Royal said.
Board member Martha Wixon argued that the project should be let for bids and that the school system should be working with more concrete numbers instead of guesswork.
"I have never in my life seen a project of this magnitude with so many gray areas," Wixon said.
The City of Birmingham did not solicit bids for the computers or make a request for proposals. Alabama's bid law requires that most purchases more than $7,500 be subject to open bids.
While the city did not let the project for bids, several developing countries have, and the OLPC non-profit has faced stiff competition from similar products, mostly from Intel's Classmate PC.
The XO laptops have received mixed reviews. While the computers feature unique innovations, such as displays visible in direct sunlight, early adopters have discovered problems with networking and durability of the keyboards.
The XO laptops currently use a Linux-based operating system called Sugar instead of Microsoft's more common Windows products. However, the mayor's office has argued that the unusual program will not be a problem for younger, more intuitive learners. Thursday night, most board members seemed to agree.
"The biggest problem will be teaching our teachers," Williams said.
Board member Dannetta Owens cast the only vote against the pilot program.