From School to Home to Work, Governments Struggle with Financial Policies for Tech Devices

Many school districts pay for students to bring iPads home and many government agencies allow employees to use their personal devices for work. But issues like who pays for devices when they break, get lost or stolen are unclear.

Classroom Tablets
In September, the Los Angeles Unified School District found itself embroiled in a controversy over its $1 billion plan to equip all students with iPad tablets. The school district had no uniform policy regarding responsibility for lost or broken devices. LAUSD circulated at least three different parent information forms, including one that required a signature acknowledging that parents are financially responsible if a student breaks or loses the device. But it was unclear if the forms were signed prior to giving the tablets to students or whether the form was legally binding, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Because of the size and scope of LAUSD’s plan to create what’s known as a 1:1 initiative, where every student receives a school-funded computer, the fact that it lacked a financial responsibility policy is unsettling. It also raises broader questions about how states and localities shape financial policies -- whether for 1:1 initiatives or for the growing popularity of so-called BYOD (bring your own device) programs, which affect not just schools but government agencies. BYOD is a relatively new trend that allows individuals to bring personal devices, such as laptops and smartphones, and use them in the workplace. A small but growing number of school districts are allowing children to bring their own iPads to school, and many government employees now work under similar policies.

The question of who pays for a broken iPad became a problem in Los Angeles when 300 high school students figured out how to disable security measures on the tablets to visit unauthorized websites. As parents asked questions, they discovered that school officials hadn’t decided who pays when one of the $700 iPads is broken or lost. Meanwhile, the Fort Bend school district outside of Houston, Texas, shut down a $16 million initiative to give students in second through eighth grade 6,300 iPads because it was unclear how the program would work.

These incidents highlight concerns about how government institutions craft financial policies covering devices, whether they’re purchased by a school district, government or are part of a BYOD program.

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In Waukesha County outside of Milwaukee, the school district drafted a very explicit financial policy for students provided with an iPad by the school. The first time a student damages an iPad, his family must pay a $30 fee, which doubles if the student damages the device again. The maximum repair cost is $100. If the iPad is lost or stolen, the family is responsible for replacing the device at a cost of $500, unless the family meets certain conditions, such as immediately reporting a stolen iPad to school authorities and the local police department. The student-family financial responsibility form requires a parental signature.

Since students will use the school-owned devices at home and school, the Waukesha financial policy tries to cover every conceivable condition, including the very likely possibility that kids will lose their iPad cases, charging cables and other accessories at some point. With school districts just beginning to forge tech plans that allow students to use school-issued tablet computers in the classroom and also at home, policymakers have focused on getting parents (and teachers) to believe that an iPad is an essential learning tool. Technology enthusiasts have said little about costs, repairs and replacements.

Workplace financial policies

The other murky area of tech financial policy involves BYOD. Corporate workplaces have been grappling with this issue for a while and now it’s become a topic of discussion in the public sector. The biggest questions center around how to reimburse employees for business expenses they incur while using their own mobile device on the job.

The National Association of State CIOs posted a paper on its website that advocates for a simple and consistent way of compensating employees while providing an incentive to keep excessive calling, data and roaming charges in check. NASCIO cites a government research organization that “pays employees who are approved to participate in the BYOD program a fixed monthly amount, which is included in their paychecks.”

Overall, NASCIO explains there are three categories for a BYOD reimbursement policy:

  • Direct billing: the organization buys the device and pays for the data plan.
  • Stipend: The organization offers a monthly stipend to support the employee’s use of the device.
  • Expense: The agency reimburses the employee based on expense reports.
In August, the White House released a “BYOD toolkit” for government agencies, which includes a policy template that outlines a model for reimbursement. Citing the fact that workers are using their own devices, the policy recommends government agencies adopt reimbursement practices that fairly compensate workers who pay for their own data plans while using their smartphone or tablet during work hours, as well as those workers who have to frequently communicate outside their coverage area and may incur roaming charges.

Jerry Schulz, who writes about technology for the International City/County Management Association and is a former director of information technology in local government, is a skeptic of BYOD programs, despite their growing popularity. He cites the complex IT issues that occur when workers link their own devices to a state or local government’s network. “When you add liability and reimbursement, it just increases the number of issues that can be avoided by having government-owned devices, instead,” says Schulz, who is vice president at Voorhees Associates, a management consulting firm that works with local governments.

The extra cost of issuing devices rather than having employees bring their own should be viewed as part of the cost of doing business -- and may be offset by the elimination of the need to provide BYOD support, he says. “But more importantly, it will allow the job to be done better.”

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.