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EDITORIAL: Schools must cash tech check: Unspent Microsoft settlement money is like an unclaimed lottery ticket.
[November 18, 2008]

EDITORIAL: Schools must cash tech check: Unspent Microsoft settlement money is like an unclaimed lottery ticket.

(Bakersfield Californian, The Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Nov. 18--It's a windfall for California public schools: a $250 million grant from Microsoft for new computers, software and training, part of a $1.1-billion class-action lawsuit settlement against the company.

Microsoft allegedly schemed to monopolize parts of the computer industry, and punitive, court-ordered manna for schools -- in the form of a voucher program -- seemed like an appropriate way to distribute proceeds from the verdict.

But two years later, nearly 80 percent of the money is still in the vault, unclaimed by California schools. Only a few Kern County school districts have started cashing in.

The Panama-Buena Vista Union School District has had more than $519,000 of the pool set aside in its name, but, according to the settlement administrator's Web site, the money is still sitting there.

Ditto for some of Kern County's smaller districts: Mojave Unified ($147,837), Buttonwillow ($19,305) and General Shafter ($15,240) haven't dipped into their share of the settlement money.

It's important that they take advantage of the settlement, and not just for the most obvious reasons. The state's schools will eventually receive an even larger payout once a final part of the lawsuit is settled, but state attorneys might not be as motivated to pursue it while the original pot remains so full.

"We've spent 70 percent of our ($1.5 million) allotment," said Paul Helman of the Kern High School District. "We'd like more districts to participate so the state will disperse its second allotment."

The Bakersfield City School District, the largest K-8 district in the state, has spent all but about $24,000 of its $1.4 million share, which makes it perhaps the most efficient of the large local districts in terms of taking what's theirs. Among small districts, the prize goes to the Beardsley Elementary School District, which has used all but about $1,000 of its nearly $100,000.

But for many of the other districts, their settlement money is like an unclaimed lottery ticket.

Some school districts may be waiting to see how much more might be coming before they decide how to spend their share. And many are undoubtedly being deliberate about the process. "We're not going to go out and spend like a bunch of drunken sailors," says Jim Varley, a spokesman for the Kern County Office of Education, which has claims with settlement administrators pending for about $22,000 of its $121,000 share. "We're going to go about this very carefully."

Clearly, the need is huge. Computers at many California schools are broken or outdated, or in need of current software programs. The tech budget is so tight for many, money to make repairs, perform maintenance or purchase upgrades would be nonexistent without this settlement.

It may get worse before it gets better. Schools were already tightening their belts before the state budget went south this year, and the phony solution the Legislature came up with left gaping holes that must still be filled. Educators remain concerned they'll be hit again.

Local school districts need to make claims before the six-year window closes. At this rate, by the time the next phase of the Microsoft lawsuit is settled, new needs will likely have emerged. Meanwhile, current students will have been cheated out of greater learning opportunities.

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