The Prince George's County public school system this year has snared more than $9.2 million in federal grants for computer wiring and other telecommunications services -- a record amount for the district and nearly three times the previous high.
Last week, the school system showed the fruits of its aggressive technology funding program with the unveiling of a new Global Positioning System (GPS) for its 1,300-bus fleet.
The GPS devices, which cost about $177,000 to install and $800,000 to operate annually, will give Prince George's by June the largest automated school-bus tracking system in the Washington area.
County schools chief Andre J. Hornsby, a self-described "tech nut," has pushed for the computer and communications upgrades since he took office in June 2003. He said the federal government will foot much of the bill for the GPS and other initiatives.
The source of the money is the federal "e-rate" program, a $2.25 billion fund established under a 1996 telecommunications law that aims to help schools and libraries connect with the Internet and boost their internal networks. School systems that serve low-income families qualify for higher funding.
The result is that Prince George's, which has a substantial population of students on free or reduced-price school lunches, is eligible to be reimbursed for 64 percent, or more, of certain communications costs. That means that an $800,000 GPS operating bill would be cut to about $288,o00. And much of the $177,000 installation cost is expected to be offset by savings from other e-rate projects.
Among the biggest of those projects are $1.38 million for classroom computer wiring at Baden Elementary School and Crossland, Fairmont Heights and Suitland high schools. "They really want to get wired," said the school system's chief information officer, W. Wesley Watts Jr. "They've been dying to do this."
The federal government will reimburse at a higher rate of 82 percent because of the lower income levels at those schools, bringing the grant total to as much as $1.16 million.
In addition, a $2.58 million project for networking switches and servers at 41 schools will be reimbursed up to $2.19 million, and a $2.4 million high-speed Internet trunk line upgrade will be reimbursed for $1.54 million. Expanded "distance learning," which beams lectures into classrooms via television monitors, qualified for up to $335,000 in grants.
Local and long-distance telephone bills also will be paid with $2.25 million in e-rate money. Two other projects under study are a "homework hotline" to help teachers communicate with students and parents, eligible for about $819,000 in federal grants, and new student e-mail accounts, eligible for $120,000 in grants.
Watts said the previous record for e-rate funding in Prince George's was $3.14 million in 2001-02. The telecom chief -- a former mathematics and science teacher whose initials are, felicitously, WWW -- said of this year's $9.29 million windfall: "I've been here for 13 years. This is a dream of mine come true."