School District Technology in Shambles

August 12, 2016

 

 

by Barbara O’Brien

Superintendent Richard Langlois prefaced the remarks of the Windham School District’s new Executive Technology Director Harry Bennett by saying there was “a sense of urgency” regarding the state of the district’s technology.

Dr. Bennett took on the job of technology director last month, replacing Kevin Verratti.  During the Aug. 9 school board meeting, Bennett said his first task was to evaluate the existing situation.  He was already aware that the school district’s website is in need of being revamped, he said, but he was not prepared for the decrepit condition of the entire system.  There had been no substantial updates in six years, Bennett explained, basically not since Windham High School opened.  There was also no physical inventory of equipment, something school board members had requested on several occasions in the past year or so.  “An asset management system did not exist,” Langlois said.

“Everything is out of date, in some cases dangerously so,” Bennett explained.  Most of the system is at an end-of-life stage and no longer supported by manufacturers or vendors.  Some equipment has suffered electrical damage because of shoddy repairs, while other pieces have deteriorated because they were put in an uncontrolled environment.  The poor network connectivity exists because no upgrades were ever put in place, he continued.  There are two conflicting systems, both of which are out-of-date.

Lack of security is the biggest hazard, Bennett stated.  “The security system for wireless is seriously out of date,” he said, adding that it would take someone with the know-how about six minutes to hack into the school district’s system.  The firewall, web filter and anti-virus programs barely work, according to Bennett.  “There is very little ability to track intrusions,” he told school board members.  The network backup system had also crashed and was not backing up information.  Bennett said he has been able to repair some of the problems, at least temporarily, but the overall problems loom large.  The school district phone system is also out of date and has reached its capacity, he commented, although this is not as much a priority as upgrading computer technology.

There are also major deficiencies on the instructional side of the equation, with the exception of the high school.  Bennett said most of the computer equipment at the other schools is out of date, in poor condition and just too frustrating to use.  The older laptops are not even capable of accommodating standardized testing, he said.  “They need to be replaced.”  “There is no equity between schools,” Langlois stated.  “This is not the way we should be treating students.”

School board member Dennis Senibaldi agreed with Langlois, adding, “the palace on the hill (Windham High School) gets everything.”

“It seems we’re a system of schools, rather than a school system,” Langlois said.  “We need to move immediately in the direction of providing equitable education to all students.”  Stating that he doesn’t want to get stuck in the past, fretting over what wasn’t done, Langlois said he wants to look to the future.

Bennett told school board members that there was absolutely no strategic plan in place when he arrived, but he has already started working on a three- to five-year plan.  However, he clarified; there are some things that just can’t wait.  “Security is the most immediate issue,” Langlois said.  “You’ve been living on the edge with a prayer for a long time.”

As for the short-term, Bennett said he would like to have new technology equipment in place by this coming Christmas.  The work would be done during times that school is not in session, he said, noting that he has already begun looking into a new wireless system that includes web filtering for any kind of device.  Staff would also need to be trained, so they would feel comfortable with any new equipment and/or system.  “We don’t intend to just drop it in their laps,” Langlois said.

As for the current process of reassigning laptops from graduating high school seniors to eighth graders at Windham Middle School that is no longer a viable concept, Langlois said, noting that the number of eighth grade students exceeds the number of 12th grade graduates.  The high school has utilized a one-on-one laptop program since it opened its doors in 2009, with a specific laptop assigned to each student for use during the duration of their stay.  Bennett recommended the purchase of Chromebooks for students in second, fifth and eighth grade, rather than handing down laptops that are in questionable condition.  Chromebooks reportedly cost about 75 percent less to purchase than Apple laptops.  The hand-me-down laptops should be placed on a mobile cart and used only as needed; something that would be likely to occur about five-percent of the time.

Acquiring Chromebooks for students is one of the most critical issues to be solved, Bennett said.  Chromebooks are much sturdier, less likely to be hacked, less likely to be dropped because of their light weight and very easy to repair.  According to Bennett, the boot time on a Chromebook is only about two seconds.

To accomplish the things deemed critical; those that cannot wait for a strategic plan to be implemented, the cost would be about $346,000, money not included in this year’s operating budget.  Langlois’ recommendation was to use money appropriated by voters through the Capital Needs Assessment account.  “There’s no other source,” Langlois emphasized.

According to William Hickey, newly hired business and finance director, the warrant article passed by voters didn’t specify precisely what capital needs would be addressed with the funding.  Hickey said the New Hampshire Department of Revenue Administration concurred with his opinion.  “The warrant article was very broad,” Hickey said.

School board member Ken Eyring said his only concern with using the CNA money for technology would be violating the trust of voters.  Senibaldi also said he had some concerns about the legality and ethics of using the funds on something not spelled out previously.  “I’m happy we have a team with a plan,” school board member Rob Breton stated.  “We don’t want to handicap them.”

Bennett said the quickest he would be able to get Chromebooks delivered would be two weeks and he would still need a few days to get them prepped for students.

Eyring also asked Hickey to check into whether or not the money that was allocated for technology in the past two years was spent as intended.  He also said he wanted a detailed list of proposed expenditures regarding the current proposal to upgrade the system and equipment.  “I want a better understanding,” Eyring said.  Former school board chairman Barbara Coish questioned whether a Chromebook, with a life-expectancy of three years, would be considered as a capital improvement.

Resident Bob Coole suggested that the school board waive its bid procedures and go with a single vendor for the Chromebooks.  “Get this process going,” Coole said.  “Get the students what they need.”  Residents Rich Amari and Cynthia Finn both expressed appreciation to Langlois and Bennett for all the effort already put into resolving the technology shambles.  “This is brilliant,” Amari said of Bennett’s work thus far.

After further discussion, school board members decided to put off a decision on whether to approve spending capital needs assessment funding for technology until Bennett and Hickey have more time to check out any possible ramifications.  Tentative plans are for the school board to meet again on Tuesday, Aug. 16, beginning at 6 p.m. at town hall.  This meeting will be open to the public.