The school district that last year gave every fifth-grader a laptop computer has once again broken new ground in transitioning to the digital age.

This year Riverside Elementary School District 96 has given every school board member an Apple iPad.

This summer, the district purchased a total of 140 iPads at a cost of about $70,000, according to Dist. 96 Superintendent Jonathan Lamberson. Seven were given to school board members and the other 133 are being used by students and occasionally by administrators. Each elementary school has a cart of iPads for student use at school.

The money to buy the iPads came from approximately $350,000 the district received from the federal government.

“The money for the iPads came out of the federal stimulus dollars,” Lamberson said. “We spent about 20-25 percent of the stimulus money that came to the district from the feds, and we did that intentionally because the federal stimulus money is a one-time revenue source.”

The district bought the basic wireless iPad, not the more expensive 3G version. The district had to pay the retail price of $499 because no educational discounts were available on such a new and hot-selling product, according to Vern Bettis, director of technology.

Board members use their iPads at meetings and at home to access the school board packet and other district documents. In October, the district eliminated the traditional thick paper board packets it used to provide to board members. Now the entire packet, including supplementary materials, is posted on the Dist. 96 website.

The iPads have proven popular with the board.

“They were thrilled that this is now available,” said Lamberson, who added that providing iPads to board members and eliminating the paper packets will save money in the long run and make the school board more efficient.

“There’s no frill attached to this at all,” Lamberson said, noting that a district employee used to spend a day and a half preparing the monthly board packets. “We are saving, on average, $6,000 to $8,000 a year simply on the collating, assembling, stapling, hole-punching, etc. If you add on top of that the printing cost, I would easily envision that this effort has saved the district nearly $10,000 a year.”

Board members will have to return their iPad to the district.

“They’re school district property,” said Lamberson, noting that iPads are about half the price of a laptop computer.

The village of Brookfield provides all village board members with an Apple laptop, loaded with the board packet, for each meeting. The trustees receive them a few days before the board meeting with the packet preloaded, and they return the laptop after each meeting said Brookfield Village President Michael Garvey.

School board members say the combination of online materials and iPad make it easier to access information, especially historical information.

“It reduces the amount of paper in my house,” said Jennifer Leimberer. “That board packet from last month was over 300 and some odd pages of paper. It’s kind of nice, actually, to be able to manipulate and move things around and have the data at hand. If I need something from a previous meeting, I don’t have to say, ‘Oh, that’s at home.’ It’s right there so I can pull it up during the meeting. The other huge thing I love is that our board packets are now available for the public, which they weren’t before.”

Mary Stimming, the only board member who routinely brought a laptop to board meetings before the district went paperless, said she had no strong feeling on whether providing iPads is a good use of public money.

“That’s an interesting question,” Stimming said.

But she likes that all board members are using the same instrument at meetings.

“It’s a uniform delivery system and you can’t claim that you forgot your materials,” Stimming said. “It’s all right there. Everyone can look at the exact same thing. Not all of us have home laptops.”

The board did not vote on a specific motion to authorize buying the iPads. It was an administrative decision to purchase them, Lamberson said.

Stimming said she doesn’t use her iPad for personal use. “I only use it for the board business,” she said.

Posting the entire board packet, including supporting materials and documents, on the Dist. 96 website seems popular.

“I think it’s the way of the future and because we are a district that is moving forward, I think it’s a fantastic thing,” said board member Hareena Wakely. “The website going forward is a way of giving the parents a lot of the information that some have said several years earlier was lacking. Now any parent with a computer can see what’s going on in the district to a penny.”

The beefed up district website is now averaging about 1,200 hits a day.

“We’re moving toward electronic communication with parents,” Lamberson said.

Riverside Brookfield High School District 208 has also recently beefed up its website with a new board page and has also started posting its school board packet online.

Lamberson calls the new devices an experiment.

“It’s kind of a pilot this year. If we end up with the board saying, ‘You know what? This isn’t working for us and we’d like to go in a different direction,’ that’s fine.”

He said they aren’t the only school district considering this.

“I know other school boards are looking at the iPad because of its cost and its ease of use,” Lamberson said.

At the schools, iPads are being used in the classrooms, particularly with younger children.

“The technology allows for enhanced learning at a cheaper cost than a laptop,” Lamberson noted. “It seemed to be a no-brainer decision.”

The remaining 80 percent of the federal money the district received from the stimulus act also went, in large part, to upgrading technology in District 96.

“We used it for upgrading the Internet access servers in all the schools,” Lamberson said. “We upgraded library materials. We provided some limited staff development because that’s a non-recurring cost, unlike salaries and benefits, and we used some of the dollars to fund two years’ worth of the laptop initiative, so we got a lot of bang for those dollars.”

Laurel DiPrima, a policy consultant for the Illinois Association of School Boards, said other school districts in Illinois are providing iPads to school board members, though she didn’t identify specific districts. “In general, I would say a lot of boards are moving that way,” she said.