Apple has agreed to let the state take a year to pay the rent on computers.

PORTLAND – Faster than you can hit control-alt-delete, the Baldacci administration on Tuesday rebooted the idea of expanding the state’s laptop computer program into high schools.

Under the proposal, Apple is considering renting laptops to school districts that want them for high schools this fall, and payments would be deferred for a year, Education Commissioner Susan Gendron said.

Gendron hopes Apple’s fee would be the same low rate negotiated when more than 30,000 laptops were distributed to middle schools.

The tentative plan came together quickly during behind-the-scenes negotiations between representatives of Apple Computer Inc. and the state Education Department a day earlier in Augusta, Gendron said.

“We’re tying to be creative problem solvers,” said Gendron, noting that many school superintendents want to see the laptop program expanded.

The school superintendents’ association was advised to put out the word to find out which school districts would be interested.

If enough superintendents express interest, there would be the possibility of asking state lawmakers to share the costs, Gendron said.

The state originally proposed a cost-sharing formula with the state paying 55 percent of the cost and local school districts paying 45 percent. But Gendron said the state is examining other funding formulas.

The two leaders of the Legislature’s education committee, both of whom thought 24 hours earlier that there was no hope for laptops in high schools, expressed admiration for Gov. John Baldacci’s persistence.

Rep. Glenn Cummings, co-chair of Education and Cultural Affairs Committee, said he liked the proposal because it would put laptops in schools this fall. If lawmakers reject additional funding, then local school districts would only be on the hook for a rental fee, he said.

Sen. Neria Douglass, the other co-chair, said it makes sense to use the state’s bargaining power to bring about a low rental fee for local school districts. But she said no state dollars should be spent before the issue of expanding the program is brought to the full Legislature.

For his part, Baldacci has not yet committed to any specific proposal. Baldacci is reviewing four proposals in all, but the one discussed by Gendron is the leading option, said spokesman Lee Umphrey.

Questions remain about the state budget, especially as the possibility of a special session on tax reform looms and as two statewide tax reform questions come up for votes in June and November.

Fiscal questions aside, educators, students and parents seem to support the program for expanding laptops.

Douglass said the state simply could not afford the program this year, and she wonders whether the fiscal picture will brighten before lawmakers tackle the next two-year budget in January.

“The issue is could we afford it and we probably couldn’t this year,” she said. “If the economy changed, then maybe we could.”

AP-ES-05-04-04 1737EDT

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