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Sweet Home taxpayers, staffers and students will all be getting more than they bargained for as the district begins implementing its $7.5 million technology project.

The plan, approved by voters in 1996 as part of a $12.9 million bond issue, set out to add more than 1,000 computers to labs and classrooms, improve the phone system and connect district buildings in a local network.

Since then, technological improvements have rendered nearly obsolete the equipment included in the original design.

When the project was designed in 1996, for instance, the plan called for microwave towers to transmit information among the buildings. At the time, it was the best and the fastest money could buy, at a total cost of $310,000.

But since then, fiber-optic cable has become the method of choice for transferring information. The buildings are going to be connected with the cable, which will send information much faster -- and considerably cheaper.

Adelphia Cable won the bid to install the cable, at a cost of $218,000. The fiber-optic cable also will transmit phone calls once the new system is installed, and it will allow for more simultaneous transmissions.

"By waiting and letting digital technology catch up and drop in price, we were able to get a system 10 times as fast," said James P. Sheehan, assistant superintendent for business.

The district has been able to make the most of technological advances partly because district personnel are installing the system, according to Sheehan.

Electricians were hired to work on the installation; they will replace retiring employees and be trained to do other work once the system is in place.

"The key to having our own people is the flexibility," Sheehan said. "We only keep in stock what's needed in the next couple months, so we can see what's out there."

And by waiting until equipment is needed to order it, the district makes the most of falling prices.

Once the project is completed, more than 1,000 computers in the district will be networked. Staff will have access to files and e-mail from home as well as from school. Students also will be able to access their work from home, and they will be able to tap into library resources and CD-ROMs from home.

The network already has been installed in all the high school classrooms, library, labs and offices, as well as the middle school offices, library and classrooms and elementary offices.

The elementary libraries and fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms will be finished by the end of March, and kindergarten through third grade classrooms are expected to be finished by the middle of July.

The new phone system will be installed toward the end of the year, in the final phase of the project.

By using the fiber-optic cables, the district will eliminate the current cost of local phone calls using the phone company's lines, Sheehan said.

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