The Citrus County School Board will shell out $343,000 to lease another 1,000 student iPads to help cover the 1,100 units that students failed to return after the past school year.

School board members voted unanimously during this week’s regularly scheduled meeting to spend the money after staff told them the incidents of broken or unreturned iPads had more than doubled.

Kathy Androski, the board’s technical director, told the board that given the COVID-19 pandemic and a significantly higher rate of students learning from home, the number of broken and non-returned iPads have significantly increased.

But school staff “have been hammering away” and trying to track down the equipment, Androski told the school board.

That includes locking the iPads remotely when someone tries to turn them on, she said, and showing a message on its screen saying the equipment belongs to the Citrus County School District and please return it.

The school board leases/owns between 16,500 to 17,000 iPads, Mike Mullen, assistant superintendent of schools, told the Chronicle.

Androski told the Chronicle that the school district typically sees 7% to 10% of the iPads damaged each year and about 3% not returned. This past school year the district saw 24% damaged and 10% not returned.   

She told the school board that originally staff began with about 1,500 missing iPads, but during the past weeks have reduced that to the current 1,100. The students’ parents sign contracts with the school district that they will return the iPads at the end of the school term.

Androski said staff are making progress at recovering iPads.

"Five percent of the 24% of damaged iPads were covered by iPad insurance the district purchased," she told the Chronicle. "The remaining costs associated with the damaged iPads has been paid for by parents, covered by their purchase of iPad insurance, or has been charged to the parents with collection of the monies owed still being pursued.
 
"The district continues to pursue the recovery of iPads not returned by students or recoup the cost of the iPad from the families that did not return them."
 
But Chairwoman Sandy Counts told staff and the school district’s attorney that she wanted tougher language in the contracts about the consequences of not returning the iPads, such as reminding that violating the contract could result in prohibiting the students from extracurricular activities.

The school board also offers parents iPad insurance for $24.99.

But Mullen warned that the board could make the insurance a requirement, but parents could refuse and “at the end of the day they’ll come here and say my (child) needs an education” and the board would be hard pressed not to loan out the iPad.

Board member Douglas Dodd asked whether lost or broken iPads could be replaced with cheaper, bare bones equipment. But Androski told the board that that her study showed that cheaper models break more frequently and end up costing more because of repair costs.

Board member Thomas Kennedy asked about how law enforcement can get involved, but Androski told the board that since the iPads were loaned out and they are of relatively low value, and the items are often outside the county, their return is not made a priority by law enforcement.

Board attorney Wes Bradshaw also reminded board members they could pursue the issue using civil means if criminal avenues were adequate. But Counts said that it looks for now as if there is no consequence for students and parents for not returning the iPads.

Mullen said school staff could be as aggressive as the board wanted them to be in getting iPads back, but he needed the board’s approval to buy more.

“The immediate problem in front of us is we’re out of iPads,” he told the board.

He also warned that offering online education without school-issued iPads was not an option.

“I believe this to be the best solution right now,” he Mullen said. 

In other business, the school board:

• Agreed to host school sporting events, but with reduced seating and a warning that if fans do not follow social distancing rules and mask requirements seating capacity could be reduced.

The school board also voted unanimously to contract with Hometown Ticketing Inc. to oversee online ticket sales. Assistant Superintendent of Schools Jonny Bishop said schools will also offer ticket sales at schools one or two days a week for those people without online access, but urged that the focus would be online sales.

Under the plan, there will be no ticket sales at the gates of sporting events and seating capacity at the events will be 25% and require masks.

Bishop said if fans follow the rules, school staff would look to expand seating percentages but would lower them if fans don’t follow the rules. Bishop said the staff are also working with neighboring counties to establish ticket sales during away games.

Bishop is also encouraging families to buy season tickets if possible to ensure they get seats during games.

Also, to ensure the 25% seating limit is not exceeded at popular sporting events, there will no longer be free tickets or free entry for school staff, Bishop said.

However, for some sporting events that have typically low attendance, tickets will be free, he said.

School staff are also working to designate isolated areas for school bands during school events, he said.       

• The board members unanimously approved the district’s 2020-2021 millage rate and budget. The board approved its state-established millage rate of 3.6820. It also approved unanimously its discretionary 0.7480 millage rate, capital improvement millage of 1.5000 for a total millage of 5.9300.

The millage is expected to generate $49.7 million at a 96% collection rate, according to school records. In addition to other state and federal revenues, the school board is expected to receive $150.8 million.

• Unanimously voted to join a program with the University of Florida in which graduate students would offer Citrus County students with mental health counseling. The program also gives the UF students clinical experience. They would be overseen by the school district’s psychologist, said Lynne Kirby, director of exceptional student education.

Board member Linda Powers agreed that the UF students would in turn become more well-rounded therapists because of the program. She asked if they would have to follow school district policies and Kirby replied yes.

Kirby said an additional hope would be for some of the UF graduate students to come to like and enjoy the county and decide to stay.

Contact Chronicle reporter Fred Hiers at fred.hiers@chronicleonline.com or 352-397-5914.