July 10, 1997

New York Lags in Providing Schools With Computers


NEW YORK -- More than 40,000 of the 70,000 personal computers in public schools in New York City are obsolete because they are more than 10 years old, according to a report released Wednesday by the Board of Education.

To let classrooms start reaching into cyberspace, the report called for spending $2.1 billion on computer hardware and on repairs to school buildings, so the new equipment could be plugged in and used.

The report is expected to figure in the debate over how the state and city can afford computers for dilapidated school buildings, which would need extensive rewiring to accommodate as many machines as the report says are needed to give schoolchildren access to the Internet.

In his annual address to the City Council in January, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani proposed spending $150 million on computers for the schools. He also called on the business community to raise a portion of the costs and reduce the city's share.

On Wednesday the Giuliani administration promised to review the Board of Education report, which was issued by the Division of Management Information Services.

"Technology can be enormously beneficial," said a spokeswoman for the mayor, adding that City Hall would work with Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew "to see how much can be realistically accomplished."

The report said that the school system would need 131,000 new computers by 2002. But buying them would account for only a third of the $2.1 billion budget. Elspeth Taylor, a spokeswoman for the division, said that nearly half of the money would have to be spent on "infrastructure improvements," including new electrical wiring and telephone lines at the city's 1,085 schools.

The report said that there is now one computer capable of accessing the Internet for every 50 students, and only a third of them work. The report set goals of one computer for every eight students in elementary and middle schools and one for every six in high schools.

Ms. Taylor said that the city has lagged behind the rest of the country in providing children with access to computer technology in general and to the Internet in particular.

"There has been a lack of funding," she said. "There has been a lack of coordinated effort."

The report said that the "academic needs" of students and teachers had been "hindered by the lack of easy access to pertinent data and information resources," including the Internet. "Improved communications and network services," the report said, "and an integrated voice, data and, to the extent possible, video network are necessary."

To pay for all that, Ms. Taylor said the board would apply for $100,000 a year in federal money under the telecommunications law that President Clinton signed last year, which set aside $2.25 billion a year for computers in schools nationwide.

The federal money would be in addition to the $150 million the mayor promised in January. Ms. Taylor also said that the school system would appeal to businesses for additional money.

Harold Levy, the chairman of the State Board of Regents' Committee on Infrastructure and Technology, said that the schools had no time to waste, in part because the regents' standards for high school diplomas will soon include a technology component.

"If kids in New York City schools don't have access to computers and aren't trained to understand computers," he said, "there's going to be a real problem in their being able to graduate, much less compete in the 21st century. The fact that the schools aren't close is a disgrace."

But he said that installing the computers posed a variety of problems, few of which have to do with technology. "Every time you put a new wire in many of our old schools, it's an asbestos problem," he said, "so putting technology infrastructure in the buildings necessarily brings into play safety issues."

He also said that the construction work needed to install the computers should not be separate from other school-building repairs. "If you're going to open up a building to fix the roof and repair the boiler, that's the time to do the technology," he said.

"In the private sector," he said, "when you want to renovate, you don't say, 'I'll do the roof this year and the walls next year and the paint job after that,' you do it all at once. That's what we have the opportunity to do here."

Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company