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Cutting Technology Costs with Refurbished Computers

Preowned models at reduced prices fill some districts’ needs—and stay out of landfills.
Technicians and warehouse staff at CDI use a 12-step process in refurbishing computers in a factory outside Toronto.

Many district administrators are finding that they can save money on computers by buying preowned ones instead of new ones. The practice has other benefits as well: It allows districts to give more computers to more students who need them, and it also promotes good environmental practices by keeping the machines out of landfills, where they otherwise might wind up.

The preowned computers, which some vendors market as “prematurely retired,” are top-tier models that corporations and other organizations, as well as individuals, want to dispose of because they no longer need them or are replacing them with newer machines. The preowned models have been refurbished so that they can continue to provide basic capabilities, including word processing, e-mail and Internet access. Some districts get refurbished computers from companies such as CDI, while others get them from nonprofit organizations dedicated to educational or environmental improvement, such as Computer Recycling Center (CRC) or PC Rebuilders & Recyclers (PCRR), which has a “Computers for Schools” program in which students can learn about computers and then keep them.

Some administrators think refurbished models are all most students need anyway. “Let’s face it—this is the way to go,” says Dennis Crowe, director of technology in the Gorham (Maine) School Department. “Most of the time in K12 education, you don’t need the best of the best. You don’t need the latest and greatest processor of all time. You need a good, solid, workhorse machine that will do 95 percent of what you have to do, and these machines are tremendous for those functions and at a price that saves an immense amount of money.”

New England’s Deal

Crowe’s Maine district is a member of the New England International Society for Technology in Education (NEISTE), which includes any New England district that wants to join. Many districts in the region are signing up to take advantage of an arrangement NEISTE has worked out with Toronto-based CDI, which is among the largest distributors of refurbished, brand-name computers in North America.

CDI workers remove old computers that schools in Rhode Island no longer need during a ?Free Technology Waste Disposal Day.? The company planned to recycle or reuse the parts.

Districts can get brand-name computers—IBM/Lenovo, HP or Dell—at prices that average below $250 for a PC and below $400 for a notebook. “They can sometimes get two or three computers from us for the price of a new one of the same model,” says Saar Pikar, CDI ’s general manager. Refurbished computers come with three- to five-year warranties, compared to the one- to three-year warranties that come with most new ones.

Norm Chapman, a former computer and technology coordinator for the Narragansett (R.I.) Public Schools and now executive director of the Rhode Island Society of Technology Education (RISTE), brokered NEISTE’s contract with CDI last year after visiting the company in 2008. “It was a fascinating experience, observing the process of retrofitting upwards of 1,000 computers a day,” he says. “I was impressed with the care and attention everybody gave to ensure quality of service and customer satisfaction.”

Last October, CDI sponsored a “Free Technology Waste Disposal Day” in conjunction with RISTE to give all public districts in the state, as well as private schools, a way to get rid of computers they no longer needed. CDI gave a free notebook computer to the Northern Rhode Island Cooperative (NRIC), a public entity that provides special education primarily to its member districts in the state, which turned in more than 5,000 pounds, the heaviest load of recycled equipment.

CDI planned to break down the 15,000 pounds of technology waste that were turned in, then recycle or reuse the parts, resulting in what it said would be a “close to 0 percent” landfill rate.

Saving Time

Regional and state organizations that include districts in other parts of the country have similar arrangements with CDI. Through The Interlocal Purchasing System (TIPS) and the Texas-Arkansas Purchasing System (TAPS), operating jointly as TIPS/TAPS, districts and schools can buy refurbished brand-name computers from CDI at discount prices that TIPS/ TAPS, acting as a purchasing agent, negotiated with the company. In addition to Texas and Arkansas, the program is open to all districts and schools in Arizona, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas and Washington. Private schools, colleges and universities, cities and counties, and other government entities in those states also can participate.

While saving money, districts that buy used computers from CDI and other vendors through TIPS/TAPS also save time, because “they don’t have to write specs for what they need and put out bids and then review the proposals,” says Kim Thompson, who coordinates the cooperative for TIPS. “All that has already been done for them. All they have to do is contact the vendor and tell them what they want through the contract. Then they send their purchase order to the vendor and three or four days later, they have their computers.”

The Nebraska Council of School Administrators also has partnered with CDI to provide low-cost refurbished computers to districts in the state. In addition to saving money, “we’re trying to help our schools launch one-to-one initiatives if possible,” says Michael Dulaney, the council’s executive director. “When you think of every student having a computer, you think that’s basically for larger districts. But small districts with tight budgets also are looking at it. That would be a good thing here, especially for rural Nebraska.”

No Service Problems

Districts in other states that buy refurbished computers from CDI and other vendors say the arrangements work well, not just for the money saved but also for the extended warranties they get with the machines. Bruno Sestito, director of technology in the Louisa County (Va.) Public Schools, says that with CDI, if something goes wrong with a computer, they ship it back and CDI ships another one, usually within days. “Or they ship parts and we install them ourselves,” he adds, which allows the district to save money by not having to pay an outside technician to do it. The district has saved about $65,000 by acquiring more than 300 refurbished computers since 2006, Sestito reports.

Using secondhand computers, the district has achieved a two-to-one ratio of students to PCs, mostly in elementary grades, Sestito says. The equipment is “more than adequate for what our students and teachers are doing,” he adds.

Refurbish for a Cause

Then there is the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD), which obtains machines from San Francisco-based Computer Recycling Center (CRC). David Lanham, the district’s network technician and donations coordinator, says that, in the 16 years he has been in the district, it has bought “thousands” of computers from CRC.

On those secondhand machines, Lanham cites “the ease of integrating them into our environment.” He adds, “We are not state-of-the-art in every area yet. We can easily put used computers into a school that still has a 10 MB network and printers with parallel cables, things like that.”

But cost is the “paramount” consideration, Lanham says. The only cost to the SFUSD and other districts that get computers from CRC is a $99-per-computer- per-year service contract to cover an over-the-counter exchange for another machine if they need it.

“That is about a third of what it would cost if they went out and bought a new machine,” says Steven Wyatt, CRC’s CEO. “So they not only get the computer, they get the confidence of knowing they can get an exchange if they don’t have their own service technicians.”

Wyatt says that CRC can’t guarantee how long a computer is going to last before an issue arises. “So we tell them, ‘You have a machine that doesn’t work? Have you backed up your data? Good. Here’s another machine.’ We don’t make it a long, drawn-out process,” Wyatt says.

And that plan suits the SFUSD just fine, says Lanham. The district used to run its own computer refurbishing program but cut it for budgetary reasons, he says. Administrators are trying to work out an arrangement with some of the district’s high schools to have student volunteers refurbish the computers. But in the meantime, CRC “is like a grocery store. We make requests and they always fill the bill,” Lanham says.

Some schools within the Wake County (N.C.) Public School System purchase refurbished computers, although the district doesn’t as a whole. The Lufkin Road Middle School partnered last year with the nonprofit Kramden Institute to ensure that more than 30 of the students have working computers at home. The institute is dedicated to empowering economically disadvantaged students to “bridge the digital divide and advance their academic and personal achievements” by awarding them home PCs that are donated by local businesses and refurbished by volunteers.

Leveling the Playing Field

In the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the “LA’s BEST” program, which serves needy students at 180 elementary schools in the city of Los Angeles, is using refurbished computers from PCRR’s Computers for Schools program in its “KidTECH” course. KidTECH is an eight-week after-school course for fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders, who learn to type, create documents, spreadsheets and presentations, edit photos and navigate the Internet. Upon completing the program, students get a free, refurbished desktop and, with their parents, are offered training on how to properly set up, manage and use it at home. In the 2009 calendar year, 500 children at 25 different schools participated in the program.

Before linking up with PCRR last January, Sarah Serota, program coordinator for LA’s BEST, says they solicited donations of computers from local organizations, but it was time-consuming and the computers were different and sometimes of questionable quality. “It was hard for us to standardize and grow our program that way,” she says. “We needed to find a single source of computers that was reliable and professional.”

PCRR provides the machines for $165 for a basic PC or $325 for a “good laptop,” says CEO Willie Cade. Buyers also get a free three-year hardware warranty.

Because of LAUSD’s high Spanish speaking population, Serota arranged with PCRR to configure the computers so students could log on in either English or Spanish and work in either language. “It was really a great package,” Serota says.

“We encourage school districts not to buy the latest and greatest in computers,” says Cade. “What third-grader needs a Pentium with a DVD burner when a refurbished computer will do just fine for their particular application?”

Top Quality

Districts that use refurbished computers say they are satisfied that they get machines in good working condition. At CDI, which buys its computers mostly from Fortune 500 companies and computer leasing companies, “we bring them in, test them, wipe the hard drive clean, and make sure the unit is completely functional,” explains Pikar. “Then we put the stuff on the shelf and wait to get an order and upgrade the order to whatever the customer is asking for.” At any given time, says Pikar, CDI has about 30,000 refurbished computers ready to go.

Similarly, PCRR, which is a Microsoft-authorized refurbisher, puts its machines through “a rigorous testing process” and upgrades them with Microsoft software. Under the organization’s three-year warranty, he adds, “if a computer goes bad, we’ll swap it at no cost.” The first-year failure rate on PCRR machines is about 12 percent and for new equipment, it’s up to 15 percent, Cade declares.

Pikar and Cade say that when they get big orders, for 100 units or more, they’ll add extras. “If one breaks down, the customer doesn’t have to wait for us to ship a replacement,” explains Pikar. “We know something is going to happen. It just does. So they have those extras on site if they need them,” adds Cade.

Pikar acknowledges that refurbished computers “give away a little bit of speed” because their technology is not the latest, but that is their only apparent downside. Districts “save a lot of money,” Pikar says, and administrators in districts that are using refurbished computers agree that saving money is the main motivation.

Districts or individual schools that want to trade in their refurbished computers from CDI for later models can do so. “If the equipment has any value, we will give a large portion of the value back,” says Gal Pikar, CDI’s marketing manager and Saar Pikar’s brother. But that rarely happens, he says, because “schools tend to keep the computers for quite a bit longer than anyone else would,” and as a result, “their trade-ins tend to be so old there is no more resale value.”

School districts tend to use the same new computers for five or six years, compared to the business world, where three years is usually the maximum for computer life, says Keith R. Krueger, CEO of the Consortium for School Networking in Washington, D.C.

“So if they can buy equipment that is now three years old at reduced cost and get another three years out of it, it may be very worthwhile,” Krueger concludes. Districts that are doing this agree.

Alan Dessoff is a contributing writer for District Administration.