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OLD WIRING HAMPERS SCHOOLS' COMPUTERIZATION EFFORT

A computer hook-up connects four rooms at Buffalo's Bennett Park Montessori School, but there's not enough power to run the system. So when too many people sign on, some of the computers shut down.

Similar problems abound in many of Buffalo's 79 schools, as antiquated wiring and phone systems, uneven current and a shortage of electrical outlets hamper efforts to bring technology into the city's classrooms.

"Most of our schools were built when milk and foodstuffs were cooled with ice," said David J. Lanz, director of instructional computer services. "Now we're trying to put state-of-the-art equipment in these facilities. That's quite a leap."

The average city school is 65 years old, and it would cost an estimated $1 million per building to properly upgrade them for modern technology.

Unable to make such a huge investment, school officials focus their resources where they can best be used:

Two rooms at Kensington High School were upgraded at a cost of about $70,000 to accommodate a computer-driven math program.

Corporate sponsors have donated computers to schools that don't have the power to use them all. Instead, the extras are sent to schools that can.

The Internet is available at Bennett Park's library, but it shares a line with the phone system and the fax.

"Whenever we plan a program, it comes back to a plant and facilities issue," Lanz said.

School officials stressed this week that instructional computers are available at all city schools and that about 7,500 of them are in use. But circumstances aren't always the best.

At Bennett Park, power strips and a mass of wires narrow an aisle in the computer lab.

In another classroom, a recently acquired computer remains unused. That's because there are only two electrical outlets in the large room -- one on the same panel as the light switch and the other next to a sink and a chalkboard, said Phil Nicolai, the computer teacher.

Many local suburban districts have used large bond issues to upgrade their electrical and phone systems.

But Buffalo and other large urban districts have more, older schools and lack the financial resources to attack the problem all at once.

"The whole issue is that, if we don't do something about it, past inequities will only widen," said Walker Crewson, director of the State Education Department's office of technology policy.

Buffalo Superintendent James Harris said his goal is "to seek funding at all levels -- federal, state local and corporate."

He and Mel Alston, associate superintendent for plant services and school planning, hope to secure funds from:

A $2.25 billion federal discount program that covers wiring, Internet access and telephone costs. The money, raised through a surcharge on interstate telecommunications bills, is scheduled to be distributed on a first-come, first-served basis beginning in January.

A federal technology literacy program, which will provide New York State schools with $17 million in grants this school year.

The district's four-year facilities development plan, which earmarks $2 million for technology.

"The district doesn't lack the vision or skills," Lanz said. "It's a matter of mustering the resources to make it happen."

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