Robotics kits. Film editing software. Virtual-reality headsets. Wi-Fi on school buses.

The gifts Crook County School District has received from its relatively new next-door neighbor, Facebook, are technology upgrades the district could not easily afford.

The tech giant, which built and operates data centers in Prineville, has given the school district $414,500 worth of grants and items, mostly technology-related, since 2011, according to William Marks, Facebook’s community development manager for the Western U.S.

Marks said it made sense to give back to the community where his company is located.

“Our folks live here; we work here, so we invest locally,” he said.

District administrators say they’re unsure how Crook County high and middle schools would be able to afford many of these items without Facebook’s help. For example, in April, Facebook paid for a Vex V5 robotics kit for Crook County High School’s robotics class. That kit, which students can use to create high-powered robots that are controlled by coding and a touch-screen, is worth about $15,000, according to Jason Mumm, the school’s robotics teacher.

“It can be difficult to find funding without doing fundraising,” said Mike Allen, the school district’s technology director. “There’s been a few things we’ve done with the Facebook grants, that I don’t know if we’d try to do (otherwise), because we just don’t have the surplus funds.”

Facebook helped pay for an upcoming course at Crook County Middle School centered on Sphero robots, which are small robotic orbs that students can control using coding programs, Allen said. A group of 30 robots costs about $5,000, he said.

This gift augmented an identical gift of Sphero robots Facebook gave to the district in February 2018, which was paired with a $10,000 grant to buy 40 virtual reality goggles for virtual field-trips, Allen said.

Jim Crouch, who will teach the middle school Sphero course when it starts in September, said he was thrilled about the new robots, which are en route to Prineville.

“Getting these newest, latest hands-on equipment isn’t something the district can always afford, so it’s awesome to have a business partner who’s excited to help,” he said.

Mumm said he was happy that Facebook gave his class high-tech robot kits, but what he appreciated even more was having Facebook employees demonstrate the robots and chat with students about the tech field.

“You can’t put a price on that,” he said.

Most of Facebook’s grants and gifts to Crook County’s schools are focused on science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, although not all projects are centered on robotics and coding.

In March, Facebook gave the middle school about $3,000 worth of software to create and edit video, as well as photo and video equipment and drones for the high school’s art department that cost $5,650. The company held presentations at the high and middle school earlier in May about skilled position jobs like plumbing, welding and electrical work, Marks added.

Facebook has invested $10,000 in a plan to put Wi-Fi on Crook County’s school buses so that student-athletes on long rides to Hood River or Pendleton for competitions can do homework during the drive.

Marks works with elected officials in Crook County and the region’s chamber of commerce — Facebook has given more than $1.2 million in grants to the region in total — but he said working with schools is “his favorite.” The Facebook employee also works with the cities of Los Lunas, New Mexico, and Eagle Mountain, Utah, which have or will soon have Facebook data centers of their own.

Facebook opened its first Prineville data center in April 2011. It’s built on land designated as an enterprise zone, meaning that Facebook will be excused from paying up to $2.8 million annually in taxes, according to county records. That discount is good for 15 years, as long as Facebook maintains an average staff of 35 or more people at the site and pays its employees 150% of Crook County’s average annual wage.

Prineville is one of five locations in the U.S. where Facebook operates data centers, according to a Facebook spokesperson. The tech company has given $3.5 million to schools and organizations in those five communities since 2011.

Allen and Sara Johnson, the district’s superintendent, said they haven’t heard of backlash or concerns from the community about working with Facebook, which has sparked controversy around user data and its influence on the 2016 presidential election.

In fact, the district is pleased with the relationship, Johnson said.

“It should be said that we are very lucky to have Facebook in our community,” she said. “The way they interact with the schools shows their commitment to supporting kids.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7854, jhogan@bendbulletin.com

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