Digital Curriculum Costs Twice As Much As Print

Yesterday, Elisa Ferrell offered her views on the removal of textbooks from the classrooms to several different parents who wrote her with their concerns. She also claimed that the digital curriculum costs less than the printed curriculum. One parent requested permission to share this response. You can read the responses online on HCS Book Removal Discussion.

I’ve taken the liberty of copying Ferrell’s response below.

4/7/16 10:41 am

Ms. Threlkeld:

Thank you for your email. Thank you too, for including your school in your email, so we know which one of the five of us should respond to you first.

I hate to make this a long email response, but I always like to make sure everyone knows the history behind our Digital 1:1 transition. If you are an educator in Alabama, then you have up close and personal knowledge of the historical funding issues we have had for text books and libraries. We were at $95 a student for texts, then $75, then $0 for several years. When Dr. Wardysnki [sic] started in HCS our text books were in a state of advanced age and disrepair. There was one school who had been using a set of Biology texts that were over 40 years old. When the state cut funding, our elementary students were the hardest hit, because so many of those texts are consumables…tear out sheets. HCS was in a position that we needed to do a complete system upgrade on our texts because it had been neglected for so long as a result of a lack of funding. The cost to update all the texts was in the $19-$20 million range and we were in debt by about $21 million, so there was just not money to do it. Curriculum was becoming digitized and we found that it we did a system wide curriculum digital 1:1 transition rather than purchasing hard copy text books, that the financial impact would be less, all our students would have equitable access to the same curriculum, HCS would be able to move towards individualized learning for each student, and we would catapult our students into the digital age that they will be living in as adults. As an aside, one of the most frequent comments we receive from our graduated seniors after the first year of digital 1:1 was that they found they were more prepared for the college transition, with its digital texts and digital homework and test submissions, than their peers were. As a result they were more successful.

Change is never easy though, and a few parents struggled with the transition. Some wanted hard copies. Some students with vision issues needed hard copies. We worked with our curriculum provider and received a classroom set of text books that first year, for those students who were not ready for the transition and wanted to use hard copy. Those classroom sets have been in the classrooms for classroom use for the last four years. Fast forward to today, , and the majority of our students are comfortable, fluid and very fluent with digital 1:1. We have decided to move the classroom sets out of the classroom and into the library. Students who still want to reference a paper copy of the text can now check them out and use them at home, if they need to. Contrary to the social media and blog traffic, we are not holding some sort of dystopian book burning party somewhere. We are retaining the textbooks, making them accessible, and making it possible for a student to check them out and use them at home. Of course, any student with an IEP or a 504 who has vision challenges, has accommodations in place for those challenges.

I hope this helps to clarify some things.

Elisa A. Ferrell

Board Representative | District 3 | Huntsville City Schools | 256.655.8019

She followed up Ms. Threlkeld’s questions with the final response:

4/7/16 5:14 pm

Ms. Threlkeld;

That is fine. I am double checking my numbers on the cost of the digital curriculum. We had an initial outlay and then some additional update charges with Pearson, so I might be low on both the cost of traditional text books. I am verifying numbers, but I believe the cost of traditional text books would have been $23.5 million for 7 years and the cost of digital was $20.5 million for 6 years.

Elisa A. Ferrell

Board Representative | District 3 | Huntsville City Schools | 256.655.8019

State Funding for Textbooks

Yes, state funding has been inadequate for textbooks over the past decade; however, it is not zero in the current budget. In 2014, the budget allowed for $35.00 per student. In 2015, the budget was raised to $52.71 per student. While this is not sufficient to cover the complete cost of the textbooks, the city of Huntsville does make up the difference. The state does currently provide funding for textbooks. By finishing her history with the state providing zero funding, she is not offering a clear picture of the current situation.

”Our Text Books Were In A State Of Advanced Age And Disrepair”

Prior to Dr. Wardynski’s arrival, the Textbook Curriculum Committee had last met in 2008 to update the district’s textbooks. As textbooks typical remain in circulation for at least six years, these books were approximately three years old when Wardynski arrived.

Ms. Ferrell claims that there was a Biology textbook being used in “one school . . . that were over 40 years old.” I have checked extensively with teachers across the district who were here in 2011. (Sadly, most of these teachers are no longer teaching in our schools.) None of them have any memory of a school using a biology textbook that was 40 years old.

In fact, the typical response to this claim was laughter. To be frank, most were ROFLMAO, if you take my meaning.

This is almost as goofy as a time when she told a Special Education parent that before Wardynski arrived in the district, all a SPED parent had to do was threaten a lawsuit, and the district would pay them $20,000.

It is possible that a single school might have had a single teacher who had a text that old in her possession (people who value books don’t throw them away), but there is no evidence that this was the only biology text that an entire school had access to as Ferrell is clearly implying.

Cost of Upgrading Printed Texts

20120816 General Fund Balance
Slide from 2012 Budget Hearing by Spinelli

Ferrell claims that “the cost to update all the texts was in the $19-20 million range and we were in debt by about $21 million, so there was just not money to do it.”

When Wardynski was selling the district on adopting the digital curriculum during a presentation to the board on June 21, 2012, he claimed that the cost of upgrading the printed textbooks would be “somewhere around 15 to 19 million dollars. In paper. And that would involve warehousing and moving it around, all those things people are very used to see that went along with paper.”

It would seem that the cost printed textbook cost has gone up since Wardynski’s presentation.

By the way, there is no need to upgrade the entire district’s textbooks at exactly the same time. Most districts stagger the purchase of new books to spread the cost out.

Furthermore, yes, the district was in debt in 2010 and 2011 due to the school board’s refusal to provide oversight of the finances at that time. The actual amount of the debt varied between $19 and 21 million. However, according to Mr. Spinelli’s Budget Hearing presentation dated August 16, 2012 (or two months after Dr. Wardynski’s presentation on adopting the digital curriculum), the district’s general fund balance was not $21 million in debt, but rather $5,660,950.86 in the black. Further, that report also claimed that the district would have a general fund balance of $14,600,950.86 by October 31, 2012.

2012-2013 HCS Proposed Budget
General Fund Balance in August 2012

By the time that we were signing the contract with Pearson (the initial contract was signed on July 12, 2012), the district was completely out of debt. Dr. Ed Richardson saw to that when he left before Wardynski was hired.

”Financial Impact Would Be Less”

Ferrell claims that going to Pearson’s Digital Curriculum in 2012 would have a lower “financial impact” upon the district. Let’s take a look at that.

Let’s assume that as she claims in her final email that the cost of printed textbooks in 2012 would have been “$23.5 million for 7 years and the cost of digital was $20.5 million for 6 years.”

Is that actually less?

  • Printed: $23.5 for 7 years = $3.35 million per year
  • Pearson Digital: $20.5 for 6 years = $3.41 million per year

The last time I checked, $3.41 million per year is actually more than $3.35 million per year.

Since Ms. Ferrell claimed that she was double checking her numbers, I decided that it would be a good idea to double check the costs of the digital curriculum as well. Here’s what I found.

2012 Digital 1:1 Conversion Pearson Contract

digital curriculum
2012 Pearson Contract


The initial contract with Pearson called for a six year contract with Pearson for a total of $21,902,845.

The contract was revised several times since then. The most recent revision that occurred just a month ago, that Ferrell voted to approve, called for a reduction of the Pearson Contract by about $2 million. The current contract for the Pearson Digital Curriculum calls for the district to pay $18,760,902.90.

2016REVISED Contract Amendment - Pearson Education
2015 Pearson Contract Revision

So, assuming that her numbers are correct, the printed texts would have cost $3.35 million per year, and the Pearson digital curriculum would be $3.13 million per year. So, if the total cost of the Pearson digital curriculum were the total cost of the Digital 1:1 transition, that would be a small savings (again, assuming that $23.5 million, which is much more than the $15 million Wardynski estimate from 2012, is correct.)

But the Pearson digital curriculum is not the total cost of the transition, is it?

2012 HP Computer Contract

2012 HP Computer Contract

The Pearson digital curriculum is useless without a computer to view the curriculum on, isn’t it?

It took quite a while to get it (the contract was signed 6/18/2012, but it wasn’t publicly available until December 2012 for some reason), but the actual cost of the HP computers that the district distributed in 2012 was $10,624,000 for three years. That did not include the cost of distributions or repairs. I don’t have accurate numbers for those costs, but they were substantial. If we take the Lenovo contract as a baseline for repair costs, it’s fair to estimate that they were at least in the range of $2 million, but since I do not have an accurate estimate of those expenses, I’ll not include them here.

The cost of the HP computers to view the Pearson digital curriculum was $3.5 million a year for three years.

That means the cost of the digital transition jumped from $18,760,902.90 to $29,384,902.90. Thus, we are already exceeding Ferrell’s ever increasing cost for the printed textbooks by nearly $6 million. But the computer costs didn’t end there.

2015 Lenovo Computer Contract

2015 Lenovo Computer Contract

In 2015, the district replaced the HP computers with new Lenovo computers. These were much better computers (as is typically the case when you buy a new computer after three years), but they were also more expensive since the contract also included a repair program and assistance with the distribution.

The Lenovo contract was $16,366,000 for three years. Thus, the cost of the Lenovo computers to view the Pearson digital curriculum is $5.5 million per year for three years.

The cost of the Digital Transition have now jumped from $29,384,902.90 to $45,750,902.90.

iPad Costs

I have been unable to find a contract for the purchase of 5,060 iPads in 2012. It doesn’t seem that it was ever brought before the board of education for approval at that time. Sadly, this is not unusual.

Assuming that the district received at least the Apple Educational Discount on the iPads and that they were purchased for less than the retail costs of $499 per iPad (which was the initial cost of the iPad 2s that the district purchased in 2012), we can estimate that the iPads were at least $399 per unit for a total of $2,018,940.

These iPads (despite being 4 years old as the iPad 2 was introduced in March 2011), are still in use. Assuming that they will last until 2017, this breaks down to an annual cost of $336,490.

This raises the cost of the Digital transition from $45,750,902.90 to $47,769,842.90

Digital Curriculum is More than Twice as Much as Printed Curriculum

So let’s review:

  • Pearson Curriculum: $18,760,902.90 for 6 years or $3,126,817.15 per year.
  • HP Computers: $10,624,000.00 for 3 years or $3,541,333.33 per year.
  • Lenovo Computers: $16,366,000.00 for 3 years or $5,455,333.33 per year
  • iPads: $2,018,940.00 for 6 years or $336,490.00 per year.
  • Total Digital Curriculum Costs: $47,769,842.90 or $7,961,640.48 per year.
  • Total Printed Curriculum Costs (Ferrell’s Estimate): $23,500,000 or $3,916,667 per year.

The digital curriculum costs at least twice as much as the printed curriculum. Ms. Ferrell, as is typical, needs to recheck her numbers.

Ferrell Claims Books Will Remain In School; Keith Ward Disagrees

Ferrell concluded, “Contrary to the social media and blog traffic, we are not holding some sort of dystopian book burning party somewhere. We are retaining the textbooks, making them accessible, and making it possible for a student to check them out and use them at home.”

This is not what Board Spokesperson Keith Ward told The Huntsville Times yesterday. He stated, “They will still have them in the library if they need to check them. . . . The books being removed now will enter the system’s ‘asset management’ program. Some will be kept, he said, and some will be sold.”

Principals have been told that the books will be sold. Librarians have been told that they will be allowed to keep no more than a tenth of the textbooks the district is actively collecting right now.

The “plan” it seems is for no more than a tenth of the district’s already limited copies of textbooks to remain in school. Thus, let than 10% of our students will be able “to check them out and use them at home.”

Ferrell may dismiss “social media and blog traffic” as distortions, but without social media and blogs none of this information would have been shared with parents in the district. If Ferrell truly wished to “clarify some things,” it would have been nice if she had discussed any of these “things” before we found out about them via social media and blogs.

Part of the job requirement she accepted when she was elected was to help keep her constituents informed. It’s a shame that she did nothing to communicate this to the community before it was raised by social media and blogs. Perhaps if she were better at her job, the blogs would not need to exist.

"Children see magic because they look for it." --Christopher Moore, Lamb: The Gospel according to Biff, Jesus' childhood pal.


  1. When I taught with Huntsville City Schools, the students did have textbooks uploaded to their devices. However, some of the content was blocked due to copyright issues preventing a digital version from being published on student laptops. In that case, we definitely needed the traditional hard copies of the textbook, or we were out of luck. Additionally, the digital textbooks tended to be a bit “user-unfriendly,” as it was at times difficult for students to find exactly what they needed.

  2. Thanks Russ. Laughing at the common core math they are using to justify their actions! The most irritating issue I have with Elisa Ferrell’s response are the excuses she used as to why there were books needed in the classroom like they were some Neanderthal parents that couldn’t figure out how to use them – NOT that the books couldn’t be accessed outside the school on the laptops!! I understand this isn’t the point just yet another dig at anyone the takes issues with them.

  3. Russell, thanks again for your research and distribution of the facts. It is truly sickening how these Board members read from their prepared script in order to stay in line with Wardynski. This should be taken a bit further. There should be an audit of all the books that were purchased, the price paid, and where they are currently located.

  4. Nice work as always Russell! We are still amazed that there has been such a minimal amount of dissent amongst the parents of those who still attend HCS. I would speculate that most of those who think the situation has deteriorated substantially have been compelled to move to a private school as we have.

    Ms. Ferrell’s disingenuous attempt to make paper textbooks appear more expensive does her little credit. Even discounting the doubling of costs when you include the necessary computer expenses… comparing six years expense to seven? We see what she did there…

  5. The next article should be How to Remove a School Superintendent, with the subtitle And the Elected School Board Members that Support the Superintendent.

    While you are obviously the Superintendent’s & SB’s nemesis, they don’t really care what you say (or anyone else says). While I’m sure they get mad and temporarily embarrased, they still rule over us. We can’t get rid of the superintendent without the SB doing the ousting.

    Now if you could turn your fabulous research and writing skills into a plan of action for the community to remove these individuals from power over our schools, that would be fantastic.

    That Blog would be great reading too, and might even get some action from some other industrious readers. It could in fact be a “call to action.”

    Love your work. Keep up the fight.

    1. The best advice I have: vote just one supportive board member out this August.

      Get rid of Laurie McCaulley and vote for anyone other than Carlos Matthews for District 5.

      If either seat is filled with a person who will question him, Wardynski will run away.

      1. I think winning one or both of the board elections with candidates who are opposed to the WARdynski status quo is big. The big money in town will probably try to sway the elections but that can be overcome by getting out the vote, small donations, and creating splits within the big money interests (at least some of whom will suffer as the school district’s reputation continues to decline). But there’s more…
        –Keep up public pressure by regularly contacting the media along with other elected officials. Force this into an election issue for Mayor Battle. Regularly call and email school board members so if nothing else, they can’t say everyone is happy with a straight face.
        –OPT OUT of their ridiculous tests. Just as another commenter mentioned, you can OPT OUT of computers and you can OPT OUT of the testing.
        –Show up at board meetings in mass.
        –Spread awareness by talking with other parents and community members. At let the teachers know you have their back. They’ll likely be too scared to respond but they need to know the public is supporting them and knows what’s really going on.

  6. There is weak spot in this plan so large it would put a Mario boss to shame: what do you do with kids who have their laptops “suspended” or taken away entirely?

    Yes, it is hard for this to happen due to the already well documented issue with discipline, but it does happen in cases were damage control requires the nuclear option (better to write Timmy up for one big infraction and be done with it then write him up all year long for porn, hacking, games, etc./Susie’s parents refuse to pay for intentional laptop damage, so stop racking up bills you’ll never see paid).

    Also, don’t forget that you, as a parent, have the option to refuse a laptop. Send a signed letter to your school’s principal, turn the laptop in, and wash your hands of it. When next year comes around, don’t agree to HCS’s computer terms. They have to teach your child, laptop or not.

    What will W do if more than 10% of kids refuse to go digital? I wonder.

  7. You liberals are too much! First, you gripe because school curriculum is outdated and books are in disrepair. Then, when a solution that combines technology with actual interests of kids, you complain because of the cost!
    Face it, digital media is the future. It is what business relies on daily. It is what our kids need to learn on and be comfortable with.
    The problem, it seems, isn’t the kids. It is parents that can’t quite grasp the digital learning concept. Personally, I’m willing to pay more for my kids to have the best, and most current solutions for the classroom. Sheesh.

    1. “The problem, it seems, isn’t the kids.” My middle school son likes many forms of technology (mostly video games, music, chatting, and other adolescent interests). He likes having a school computer and enjoys most of the learning that takes place with it. He was, however, very upset when told that the classroom books were going away. He came home from school talking about it which was how I found out the information too.

      I’ll give you a few examples that are personal just to us. The digital books are not that user friendly. Social studies and science, in particular are difficult to use to find specific information without turning each page one at a time (can’t search for a question or term easily). He doesn’t enjoy the digital version of these at all. They are frustrating to use for normal “answer the questions at the end of the chapter” assignments. He would much rather have a book.

      I’ll give you an example of a digital book he likes to use and that’s math. All of his assignments are also completed online (wifi connection needed so that limits us as to when he can do his homework). He loves it, I like parts of it but not all of it. I don’t like the habits that he has picked up from the digital math curriculum. He makes more mistakes because he doesn’t write things down but tries to do it all in his head. On the flip side, he is much, much better at this age than I was at working out complex equations in his head because he’s had so much practice! I think he could be even better with more balance. Math is such a step by step process and I keep telling him that while it looks like he can skip a step in his head (and come up with the correct answer), that step is there for a reason and he’ll need it as the skills build. Thankfully, his teacher encourages and allows them to have pencil & paper available for every test or assignment, but getting him to use it is another story- just a bad habit.

      One more example would be in reading. The reading text they used last nine weeks had so many mistakes (misspellings, words left out, numbers in place of letters) that is was laughable – and embarrassing if others outside our district had looked. Could he still read it? Of course and really not a big deal, but still it was interesting if that was part of what we “bought.”

      Finally, do you realize that keyboarding skills have not been taught? In my house, we’ve had computers now for 4 years and 4 years of “hunting and pecking.” Several teachers over the years had good intentions and would spend a few days here or there on keyboarding, but nothing comprehensive. This will be a very difficult habit to break. He does not enjoy typing anything of length, such as a writing assignment. I don’t blame him. I’ve complained about this to several in our district. I have a niece & nephew in a public school in TN who type well, not because they have a school issued computer (they don’t) but because it’s part of their 3rd grade curriculum. We wouldn’t give children books and NOT teach them to read? I don’t understand this lack of teaching keyboarding. It is so basic. Do you realize the ACT Aspire requires short answer questions in every subject, even math and science. Not to mention the writing portion. Plus, these are all timed tests. Our kids need to be prepared for both the content areas and the digital format. My elementary daughter enjoys writing but gets upset when she doesn’t complete her practice writing exams. She knows what she wants to say, but must be quick enough at “hunting and pecking” (which really, they are both pretty good at by now) in order to complete the test.

      The “griping” is only because we want the best for our kids, as we see it. It’s just like anything we do in life- hopefully, we all are constantly evaluating and tweaking to make things better. When issues involve many, it’s more difficult because there are lots of opinions, but that’s how you make better decisions. My children do not have a voice in this, but they do have an opinion. Parents speak out because our children speak out to us.

    2. As a former HCS teacher, I know first hand that the students fool around on their computers. There is software on teacher laptops called DyKnow that allows surveillance. But, how are educators supposed to teach the ever-changing curriculum, teach new technology, AND monitor each child’s computer, making sure they are reading and not searching for new truck parts or Air Jordans?

      The problem is that W is an all-or-nothing-type guy. He can’t see past the end of his nose that maybe, just maybe, it would be wise to have more than one resource for students to use. I used to teach with the textbook in the classroom and then assign homework and at-home reading on the laptops via the digital textbook. I feel as though the digital resources are EXCELLENT for independent use! But, taking away the physical resource from the classroom can be a problem, as far as classroom management is concerned.

      (I also have a beef with Wardynski’s allowing cell phones in the classroom. To be sure, they can be used for engaging learning experiences. Apart from that, they should not be in use, but they are. Unfortunately, due to the code of conduct, it is very difficult and takes a long paper trail of documentation to discipline a student for unauthorized phone use in class. Forget trying to depend on parents to take their phones away.)

      1. I instruct my son to leave his phone at home each day — then he misses updates during the school day that his Biology teacher posts on TWITTER (!!!!!). That’s right, not Edmodo, Twitter. So please know that some teachers are reinforcing the same behavior you lament.

    3. While there are certainly some parents that are technology challenged, that broad stroke argument in Huntsville is shallow. And the argument of worked based automation is completely off point and irrelevant. Completing a task at work is not “learning”. At the risk of confusing the issue with facts, do a Google search on the effectiveness of digital versus paper based reading and learning. The scientific studies either support the use of paper based learning or fail to find advantages in computer based learning. At best you will find a few studies that say the is no difference in reading comprehension between the two, BUT almost all of the studies note reduced speed, reduced fluency, reduce retention and changes in the cognitive process that may reduce creative thought processing. A number of studies also find that while test scores improve for subjects such as history and social sciences, scores are generally lower when digital media is used for math, science and chemistry. Interesting since we pride ourselves in moving towards a STEM school system. (BTW, research also suggests this is true for block scheduling that is being shoved down our throats.) These studies are from varying groups. Colleges and universities, the research arm of the British Parliament, The Attorney General of Virginia… The biggest advantages seem to be to those that are able to monetize digital learning (read the publisher, technology companies and consultants).

      The real questions is are you willing to pay more for teachers? Wouldn’t you have preferred it if the extra money was used to hire qualified teachers rather than support a questionable investment. Regardless of media used to deliver the content, it is the teacher that makes the difference. Right now the best are being run off. My children have had a substitutes in several classes since Christmas and there is no end in sight. An entire semester without a qualified and certified teacher. Why? Poor working environment, and in the case of the engineering and medical programs, they won’t pay enough to get qualified teachers. Result? Kids sitting in class doing NOTHING and grades being GIVEN for work and tests that are NOT ACTUALLY BEING DONE. In many cases a substitute never even shows up.

    4. Survey some private schools, where parents are paying EVEN more for their kids to have the “best and most current solutions for the classroom.” Without exception, they still employ textbooks as part of the educational process. Wonder why that is? Look at colleges — textbooks again. Yes, technology has a role in the classroom, but it is not the essence of education.

  8. Seems Ben Joseph touched a nerve and hopefully may learn that it’s not that parents are challenged with the digital learning, but rather frustrated by the manner in which the Superintendent and Board dictate the process. Great point by KL, why is it that colleges across the country still teach with books? I too, have heard that myth about “the future is digital and paper will be going away.” Guess what. They have been saying that for 25 years and the use of paper is increasing! I know a thing or two about technology, but I myself, have had fits trying to help my child using the laptop. Moving between pages, using an index, getting back to the original page is extremely cumbersome. And please, don’t tell me about how the digital books are always up to date, as if the principles of math, physics and chemistry change on a daily basis! And History, well if you’re a revisionist I guess you’d want to update that history every now and then. It seems some parents out there don’t mind being dictated to and not have to be informed or included in any decision making that goes on within the schools (even though it’s YOUR tax money and vote that allows it to happen). I will continue to drop emails to the Board members (aka Wardynski Bobble Head supporters) and remind them of my displeasure.

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