Richard Cohen, center, participates in a School Building Committee meeting in January 2017 in this file photo.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — One Mount Greylock School Building Committee member pressed hard Tuesday to make sure the new school is part of the digital age … in every sense of the word digital.
Richard Cohen pushed back hard against a decision not to purchase classroom whiteboards that are compatible with the touchscreen capability in the projectors the district has purchased — challenging both the decision itself and the process by which it was made.
Cohen, who has called in the past for greater committee oversight of purchases in the $64 million addition/renovation project, convinced his colleagues Tuesday to appoint a working group to gather information on whether the whiteboards already purchased by the district can be switched out without adding undue cost or creating a schedule delay in the project.
At issue was the district's decision to go with boards that are compatible with Bluetooth-enabled pens but not appropriate for fingertip manipulation of images.
Cohen argued that the fingertip control is preferred by educators at the school who have utilized it, more compatible with some educational programs — particularly those that teach higher math — and easier to adopt by students used to touchscreens on their cellphones and tablets.
On the other hand, the committee had a two-page memo from the district's audio and visual technology director that explained the concerns the district has with the touchscreen technology, a question Mount Greylock first started addressing three years ago.
"During the schematic design phase in October 2015, [Mount Greylock] staff met with then [furniture, fixtures and equipment] consultant Peter Constable to discuss technology in the new building," Rob Wnuk wrote in an email included in the committee's Tuesday packet. "The projectors were a major topic of conversation. On other projects, Peter installed the touch sensors/modules and had nothing but problems. He explained to us that they did not work well and had a very narrow margin of error/tolerances and were very sensitive to any imperfections in the walls or marker boards.
"He strongly suggested that we not use the touch sensors/modules and use a Bluetooth pen system."
Wnuk's email goes on to explain that the "touch sensors/modules" can interfere with medical devices and have proven problematic where installed at other nearby schools.
"At this stage of the building project, all of the marker boards have been approved, purchased and are waiting to be installed," Wnuk wrote in his March 29 email. "It would not be cost effective or in the best interest of the project schedule to return over 50 marker boards.
"In summary, given all the many cons of this touch sensor/module, MG plans to not install the sensor module and use Bluetooth pens. Other than not being able to use a finger to control things, we will not lose any functionality by solely using the Bluetooth pens."
Cohen argued that the technology has progressed since 2015 and that the manufacturer of the projectors and touch sensors — which the district already has acquired — recommends a specific board with a rigid, steel-reinforced back to eliminate some of the "imperfections" that have plagued the technology in the past.
The committee Tuesday heard that it might cost about $30,000 to replace the whiteboards it already has acquired for the project, but the bigger question is how a delay at this point will factor into finishing the project in time for the start of the 2018-19 academic year.
The district's owner's project manager and other members of the construction team in attendance at Tuesday's meeting could not give a definitive answer on how much — if at all — the delay in installing the boards could alter the timeline. But the choice of board impacts the location of the overhead projectors, which are hardwired into the ceiling.
Delaying the installation of the projectors could have a ripple effect on finishing the classrooms themselves, and the already tight project timeline may not be able to absorb the impact.
"We all agree that getting the building open in September is the No. 1 priority," Cohen said.
"It's just we're putting a lot of communities' resources into getting a building that will serve our students' needs as much as possible. This is not a marginal issue. This is a central, core issue."
It took some time for Cohen to convince the room that the issue is as critical as he believes.
"The bias that our local officials have is a durability bias," co-Chairwoman Paula Consolini said early in the conversation. "It's an operational cost bias. And the best-looking new technology can sometimes be problematic to adopt early on because the bugs can make it not worth it."
Cohen appeared to take exception to the "best looking new technology" characterization.
"That's completely irrelevant to the conversation we're going to have," he said. "It's not about the 'shiny new objects.' It's about teachers who are well informed about what they need and have experience using it and other stakeholders who are involved in the educational process not being consulted and not being part of the process."
Process was very much on Cohen's mind. Although the immediate issue — touchscreen vs. Bluetooth pens — is one that the committee wants to get resolved as soon as possible to avoid a project delay, he said it is part of a broader concern he has about the project's procurement process.
The conversation began with a discussion of the project's invoices, and, specifically, the fact that the district was not paying as much as planned on a consultant for "FF&E" purchases.
"I didn't understand this committee decided we were going to forgo the use of experts," Cohen said.
Informed the decision was made in October and after consultation with the Massachusetts School Building Authority, Cohen persisted.
"I remember the committee saying we could forgo experts on furniture, but this line item relates specifically to technical decisions as well," he said.
Cohen said that while "smart people" can make good decisions, there are "risks" involved when those smart people make decisions for the first time. And he gave a handout to his colleagues that gave the committee a grade of "unsatisfactory" for its decision-making process on FF&E (furniture, fixtures and equipment).
"We had a long conversation around this issue," committee member Carolyn Greene said. "And we found that a lot of time spent talking to the consultants that could be better used [by staff] doing the work itself. We decided this was more efficient. This wasn't done lightly.
"We knew that our administration was taking on work that was above and beyond. That was a decision that was made."
"That was relative to furniture decisions," Cohen answered.
"It was about FF&E," Greene replied.
"Yes, and it was all about furniture," Cohen said.
FF&E, which includes everything from bookshelves to Bluetooth pens, is a $1.6 million line item in the $64.7 million project budget.
The committee ended Tuesday's discussion by appointing a working group that includes Cohen, committee and faculty member Lyndon Moors, Director of Academic Technology Eileen Belastock and Wnuk and to invite the teacher Cohen referenced in his remarks to join that group.
The group is charged with assessing the impact of a potential fix to the issue with the hope that the committee can find a resolution and, perhaps, hold a special meeting within the next couple of weeks.
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