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October 24, 2012

Option developed to work off student tech fees

Delphi schools plan community service program for students who owe on computer repairs.

DELPHI — Some families don’t have the money to cover a $100 repair if their middle-schooler breaks the school-issued laptop.

In the worst cases, families who owe repair bills to Delphi Community School Corporation and haven’t paid after 90 days are taken to small claims court. Middle school computer technician Drew Sandora, who handles the billing for the corporation’s technology repairs, said he’s been to court about a dozen times over the last year in anywhere from three to 12 cases each time.

He’d rather let students “work off” the repair bills instead, and is now asking for community donations to a fund to cover repairs for students who volunteer at local not-for-profit organizations.

Sandora, who completes all computer repairs for the corporation, sent letters to Delphi-area businesses late last week asking for donations toward the new DCS Community Service Program. Through that program, students who break the laptops issued by the school would be allowed to volunteer at partnering not-for-profit organizations and get $2 credit toward their bill for each hour of volunteering. That credit would be paid for out of the donation fund.

“First and foremost, I think it teaches the kids responsibility,” Sandora said.

The program would also provide extra help to cash-strapped community organizations and might build the character of the kids who volunteer, too.

“I’m really hoping the kids will see the internal reward of doing that kind of service,” he said.

Since the program is still new, Sandora hasn’t heard from any potential sponsors or partnering not-for-profits, but he has one family interested in participating. However, he’s unsure whether the program as it’s set up now will run afoul of any child labor laws.

The Indiana Department of Labor specifies that any child working to further the prosperity of a business is considered employed for the purposes of child labor regulations, regardless of whether the child is being paid. Children under 14 years old usually can’t work other than as a performer, caddie, newspaper carrier, babysitter or farm laborer.

There’s no specific exemption in the state’s child labor laws for volunteers or minors working for a not-for-profit organization, according to Indiana Department of Labor spokesman Robert Dittmer.

The Delphi school attorney is checking on the application of labor laws to the community service program. If there’s a conflict, Sandora said, the school would do its best to tweak the program into compliance rather than scrapping it.

Delphi Community Schools have been tweaking aspects of their one-to-one laptop program since instituting it for grades two through 12 four years ago. The school started funding insurance for all student laptops this year, which will keep costs down somewhat for low-income students, and repairs are generally done in-house. Still, in a corporation where 52 percent of students receive free or reduced-price lunches, a $100 screen repair — or worse, replacing a badly damaged laptop for $340 — is too much for some families to afford.

Angie Hunt, a single mother living in Pittsburg outside Delphi, insisted her son pay her back for a $135 repair when his laptop’s screen splintered and the keyboard was damaged.

“He’s got to learn responsibility,” she said.

Hunt’s 13-year-old son, Brendon, worked on remodeling at his uncle’s house near Delphi in May and June to repay his mother. Since then, Brendan has been able to keep additional earnings and has been much more careful with his laptop and other expensive items, like video games.

Sandora thought the experience could work well for other families, too. A year ago, he had talked with administrators about allowing students to volunteer within the schools to work off repair bills, but the idea was rejected because the corporation would still be out the costs of repairs.

He revamped the idea this year, at Hunt’s urging, and hopes that six families who might be taken to court this month will consider participating in the program.

“I came from a poor family myself,” he said. “If something like this would have happened to my mom, she wouldn’t have been able to pay for it.”

Hunt said she had mentioned the program to several friends and heard nothing but positive comments.

“It’s amazing how many parents have said they should have had the program a long time ago,” she said.

Sarah Einselen is news editor for the Pharos-Tribune. She can be reached at sarah.einselen@pharostribune.com or 574-732-5151.

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