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Secondhand computers are one way to bridge the gap. Some dealers provide multiyear warranties that limit risk.

And the rise of Web-based applications-which shift heavy-duty computing work to powerful, off-site servers-means schools can get away with units that feature less horsepower, Krueger says.Dan Schmidt, technology director for the 3,500-student Lake Geneva-Genoa City Union High School District in Genoa City, Wis., took the plunge this summer. He bought a test batch of five Dell desktops from CDI Computers of Toronto and was impressed. Now he has 350 units—and estimates his savings at 40 percent over new equipment.

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For district's like Schmidt's, refurbished computers are emerging as a win-win solution in tight budget times, satisfying both tech-hungry students and budget-conscious administrators.