Repair? Refresh? Recycle? Replace?

Repair? Refresh? Recycle? Replace?

What districts need to know when hardware begins to break down
Robert Nelson, superintendent of Chawanakee Unified SD, oversees students working on refurbished Apple MacBooks, saving the district thousands of dollars. (Photo: Will Drosche)

Just five years ago, Chawanakee USD, a small rural district nestled in the foothills of the Sierra Mountains in northern California, and the North Kansas City School District, a suburban district located just north of Kansas City, Mo., were at the starting lines of the digital revolution.

The two districts were about to launch 1-to-1 laptop programs. For Chawanakee, that meant buying new MacBooks for the 280 students in the district’s only high school. For North Kansas City, that meant leasing 7-inch HP mini laptops for its 6,000 high school students.

But that was just phase one. About three years in, both Chawanakee and North Kansas City wrestled with a quandary that all 1-to-1 programs eventually face: What to do when devices become outdated or need repairs.

There are several options. Districts can spring for the repairs or replacement parts. They can charge parents fees to cover insurance or damage. They can choose a leasing agreement that allows for new devices every few years. They can replace their entire inventory with the latest model. Or they can opt to buy refurbished devices when the old ones cycle out after three to five years.

“It’s one of the real difficult pieces of maintaining programs,” says Bob Nelson, Chawanakee’s superintendent. “People get into it thinking it’s a one-time-thing expenditure instead of realizing they’re obligated to a program they are going to need to sustain long-term.”

And, school officials and vendors say, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. The experiences of the Chawanakee and North Kansas City districts illustrate the options and obstacles navigated by any district leader maintaining 1-to-1 programs.

Chawanakee picks refurbishing

In Chawanakee’s case, when it came time to refresh the district’s stock of MacBooks after three years, officials chose refurbished laptops, which can last up to six years. The district worked with Mac to School, which buys, refurbishes and sells Apple computers and equipment to schools.

Buying refurbished devices saved the district between $250-300 per machine, Nelson says. Often, companies stop producing models after three years, requiring districts to switch to a different device, which disrupts the flow of learning for teachers and students because they have to learn how to use the new devices.

“You know immediately that the tools you are buying are becoming obsolete. You need to have a plan with how you’re going to renew your stock or keep it viable.”

By buying refurbished laptops, Chawanakee was able keep the same MacBook model, providing continuity for students and teachers. “We bought top quality devices,” says Nelson. “For our kids, they’re indistinguishable from new ones.”

Nelson admits that refurbished models likely work better for smaller districts than for bigger districts, which might have problems finding enough of the same model. Vendors agree.

“We haven’t experienced high demand for refurbished devices in large districts,” says Joe Simone, director of K12 education at CDW-G, which helps districts plan and maintain technology. “However, refurbished devices do serve as a solution for smaller and/or financially-impacted schools and districts.”

Kansas City’s new option

In the first stage of North Kansas City’s program, the district issued HP Mini laptops to 6,000 high school students. When the initial three-year lease was up two years ago and the district was required to return all 6,000 devices, officials held their collective breath.

“After being in the hands of 14- to 18-year-olds, there were lots of scratches and dings,” says Eric Sipes, the district’s executive director of information technology. “We had concerns about the bill we were going to receive.”

Luckily, Sipes says, the district wasn’t charged for the wear and tear, but the concerns prompted officials to change to MacBook Airs and a lease-to-own option. The MacBook Air boasted several advantages: faster start-up time, better virus protection, longer battery life and a more durable unibody aluminum construction, district officials said.

“We decided we were going to get more bang for our buck by purchasing new,” Sipes says. Under the terms of the four-year lease, the district pays $250 a year per laptop, or $1.5 million, and will own the devices outright at the end of the term, Sipes says. The district then has the option of returning the devices to Apple for credit on its next purchase, redistributing the devices within the district, or using them for another year or two until they break down.

The agreement erases the worry that the district will be charged for damage and also allows it to stick to the four-year refresh cycle, says Sipes. “With the way the economy has turned, we may be stretching that in year five, but we try not to go past that,” he says. “By the time a device gets past five years, it’s struggling.”

Repair policies

One key component in extending the refresh cycle of devices is the repair policy, which also varies widely from district to district. Some make use of vendor warranties and repair services; others handle basic repairs in-house.

“A district’s warranty determines whether a device is repaired or replaced, so selecting a base warranty is a big decision that districts need to make—and make early in the process,” Simone says, noting that CDW-G tries to help districts choose the best warranty for their needs. “If a device breaks, a warranty regulates whether the device is repaired in-house or replaced with a spare device while the broken device is shipped to a service center.”

When Chawanakee went with refurbished laptops, officials decided not to purchase the Mac to School care plan because the district has an Apple-certified technician on staff who handles basic repairs and also offers an IT repair class to students. Those students can fix operating systems, printer drivers, applications and other software. The certified technician can replace broken monitor screens, hard drives or other malfunctioning hardware, Nelson says.

For more substantial damage, devices have to be sent back to the vendors for repair or replacement parts. District officials said they did not see a need to spend more on a care plan, which would cost $250 and cover three years from the date of purchase.

“We have found that, with the exception of broken screens, major problems that occur with the machines that we have purchased generally occur after that three-year window,” Nelson says.

North Kansas City, on the other hand, purchased Apple’s extended warranty, which covers any hardware failures for the four full years of the lease, Sipes says. Without the warranty, the district might be forced to decide between buying new devices or shelling out $700 or more for a repair on a $1,000 laptop. “That warranty for us helps us offset costs to be able to provide the same device to kids for the full four years,” Sipes says. “It allows us to keep the 6,000 devices relatively identical.”

Leasing directly from Apple, rather than a third-party vendor, can mean faster repairs, he says. “One of the biggest issues we’ve had is the power cords, which are failing at a pretty alarming rate,” Sipes says. “By working directly with Apple, they seem to be more responsive because it is their product.”

North Kansas City’s four Apple-certified technicians, who were trained by Apple and had to pass a certification test, can do all warranty work in-house and also have easier access for ordering parts. The technicians are paid by Apple for the time spent doing repairs.

“Because of the certification program available through the vendor, we don’t have to ship devices out for repairs,” Sipes says. “We can do all the warranty work. We order parts by 1 p.m. and get it the next day.”

Responsibility factors

Perhaps one of the thorniest factors in the repair-replace-refresh phase of 1-to-1 programs is parental and student responsibility. Districts often grapple with whether to hold parents fully responsible for the cost of repairs or to mandate that they buy insurance for devices.

“Most schools are designing ‘use and care’ policies for their students and families, encouraging responsible care,” says Ken Leonard, chairman and CEO of Sunburst Digital and LearnPad Group. Other districts take on some of the costs themselves, he adds. “Some districts ‘share’ in the responsibility for home or out-of-school warranty/protection policies.”

In Chawanakee, the district encourages parents to purchase insurance to cover repair and replacement, but doesn’t mandate coverage. The insurance costs about $60 a year, Nelson says. However, if the device is broken or damaged, the parent is responsible for paying to repair or replace the device. In a district where the majority of students are on free and reduced-price lunch, most parents have resisted paying for insurance or repairs, Nelson says.

As a result, the district has had to ramp up accountability measures. For example, students and parents don’t get access to final report cards or diplomas until fines are paid, he says, noting that similar policies have long been in place for missing library books or athletic uniforms.

The district does work with parents who have trouble paying fines by allowing them to pay over time or to work off the fine through volunteer time, Nelson says.

In North Kansas City’s initial 1-to-1 cycle, the district also encouraged parents to purchase insurance from a private carrier. But few did. So this time around, the district has offered its own damage waiver. If parents choose the waiver, they pay a $50 fee upfront and a $50 deductible each time the device is damaged, Sipes says.

“There are some students who struggle to pay the $50,” Sipes says. “For most, if they damage the device, they may not be able to pay for the full cost.” The district must pay $945.20 to buy a replacement device.

Trial and error

North Kansas City also purchased the Computrace program by Absolute, which tracks lost or stolen devices. If a device is stolen, the district files a police report, turns it over to the company and, if the device is not found after a set amount of time, the company pays the district the cost of the device.

However, Sipes admits, it is too soon to tell if the cost—$360,000 for four years—is worth the service. “We’d have to lose 360 devices in four years to pay that off,” he says. “The district might have been better off to keep the money.”

The bottom line, both districts agree, is that maintaining 1-to-1 programs often requires a constant search for the right devices and policies to fit the district’s needs. On the next go-round, Sipes and Nelson say, that might mean changing from MacBooks to Chromebooks or experimenting with BYOD.

“You know immediately that the tools you are buying are becoming obsolete” quickly, Nelson says. “You need to have a plan with how you’re going to renew your stock or keep it viable.”

Monica Rhor is a freelance writer in Houston.


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