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RETURN to Arkansas Section / Monday, October 25, 1999
Glitches clog network of school computers
NOEL E. OMAN ARKANSAS DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE
Arkansas has achieved a first: It's the first (and only) state in which all school districts are tied by computer to the state agency that oversees them. Unfortunately, that hasn't turned out happily in all respects. Many of the users complain the system is unreliable, hard to use and prone to breakdown. It's called the Arkansas Public School Computer Network, and some say, for example, that the system is so slow one sometimes needs 20 minutes to type in a name to sign on. Others say they do payrolls several days in advance to ensure that employees get paid on time. Such complaints were summarized in a report based on a review of the system by the Bureau of Legislative Research at the request of the Personnel Subcommittee of the Legislative Council. Bureau staff visited with personnel in 28 of the state's 310 school districts. "You get an A for effort," Sen. Mike Beebe, D-Searcy, subcommittee co-chairman, told state officials overseeing the system. "[But] you get an F for performance. This is awful." So dire was the situation outlined in the report that Beebe raised the possibility of removing Internet access for the system's 440,000 users, most of them students. "I know that's dramatic," Beebe said. "I know that would make some people mad. But it's clogged up to the point that you can't even write a check to your teachers." On Wednesday, the subcommittee recommended less drastic measures. At the urging of Rep. Randy Laverty, D-Jasper, the subcommittee asked state officials overseeing the system to review the state's contract with a Pennsylvania software firm, which the state has paid $6.7 million over the past four years. Laverty and others are concerned that the computer system has problems that could be helped with updated software. The company promised two years ago that the software would be ready by December, but now it says it will take another two years. "Yet we continue to print money and send it to Pennsylvania," said Rep. Terry Smith, D-Hot Springs, who asked the subcommittee to examine the system after hearing complaints since 1997. "I've talked to a lot of secretaries," Smith said. "The same problems still seem to be there, the same gripes." Software is not the only problem. The state Department of Education and the state Department of Information Systems, which jointly operate the system, have been working to expand the system to handle increased demand not contemplated when the system was created seven years ago. The computer network was formed in 1992 to link every school building and educational cooperative to each other and to the Education Department. The network was designed for administrative use so school districts could electronically submit administrative, financial and student information to the department. Along the way, the state made the system the vehicle by which students could have access to the Internet. The system's administrators have been playing catch-up ever since. While 2,000 administrative users may be on the system at peak times, another 60,000 users may be on it to access the Internet, system officials say. "As long as the Internet is competing with administration for bandwidth, we're going to have a problem," said Michael R. Hipp, director of the of Information Systems Department, where the state has consolidated much of its computer expertise. Demand on the system was so great last spring that the system became virtually nonfunctioning, Education Department Director Ray Simon told the state Board of Education in August. State officials have replaced some of the system's equipment (such as the "servers") with better equipment, upgraded training, added computer lines to handle the increased use and installed equipment to identify problems in the system. The state also plans to add support staff and to provide more technical training and aid to school districts. But no matter how much the system hardware is upgraded, the system's woes will continue unless the software is improved, Smith and others said. The steps needed to complete tasks on the system are time-consuming, and the system lacks steps to guide users through the tasks, the subcommittee report said. "There is no way to check for mistakes until after the task is completed, and there is nothing to alert the user of where the mistakes may be," the report said. The software was described as hard to operate, too detailed and cumbersome. "For instance, the system requires a user to input data into seven screens to establish a new employee record and input into 10 screens to establish a new student record," the report said. Further, "improvements" have not necessarily helped because they often create new problems, the report stated. "The problems are usually worked out but ... often after the change has created problems with transcripts, payroll, or other records." The software contract is held by Pentamation of Bethlehem, Pa., a 30-year-old company that markets its software to education, local government, and business and industry. Pentamation's customers include more than 600 school districts, more than 250 local governments in 38 states and more than 500 commercial clients, its Web site said. Several telephone calls to company officials, including its vice president for sales and marketing, Bronne Bruzgo, went unreturned over the past week. While many have complained, at least one person has tried to do something about the problem. Lowell Hightower, principal of Fountain Lake High School in Hot Springs, has a background in computer programming. He said he was troubled when the state computer network made work harder for his staff. "Computers should save time and make your job easier," Hightower said. Difficulty arose when parents called the school to track down their children. Even at a small school such as Fountain Lake, which has about 1,200 students in kindergarten through 12th grade, locating a student is hard. Looking up the student via the computer did not help, especially when employees were on the telephone with a parent, Hightower said. "We get a ton of phone calls during the day," he said. "We have to have the information" about the students promptly. With his background in programming, he worked during his off hours and developed a program -- on a disk that can be inserted into the school computers -- that cuts the time required to access student information. It took him two weeks. Enter a student's name and the computer operator, at a click of a button, can find the student's discipline records. A student's schedule, grades, attendance or other demographic information are also just a click away. Kellar Noggle, executive director of the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators, has used Hightower's program. "It's much more user friendly. ... It's a very impressive program. "We keep hoping [the Arkansas Public School Computer Network] can get something close to what he is offering," Noggle said. Hightower had copies installed in all of the district's office computers. He did it for free because he wanted to avoid any appearance of impropriety, Hightower said. His wife works at a neighboring school district so that district also received free copies of the program, Hightower said. The programs he has given away are worth about $8,000, he said. But Hightower said he has sold copies to more than 31 school districts through word of mouth and a small article in a newsletter published by the Arkansas Association of School Administrators. Hightower has a contract, independent of his job as a school principal, to allow him access to Education Department computers, which he needs to develop his software. The legislative report made a reference to Hightower's efforts, noting that "several districts have purchased and utilize software as an intermediary or adjunct to the Pentamation program to make it easier to access and report data." The system has defenders, who say the system's problems have been exacerbated by the whims of changing gubernatorial administrations and have been used as a scapegoat. "Every time we had a new governor, a new director and a new board, there was a rethinking about how it ought to be organized," said state Sen. David Malone, D-Fayetteville. School districts also are quick to blame the statewide system when things go wrong with their systems, even though the actual fault might lie with the local networks, which are independent of the statewide network. The local networks are the responsibility of the school districts, Malone said. Furthermore, they often lack the technical expertise to handle problems on their networks, he said. Malone said lawmakers may bear some blame. Problems with the system this year might be traced to legislative neglect in setting aside money for a system upgrade two years ago, he said. "It would be fair to say that many of the problems we had last spring are the fault of the '97 Legislature," Malone added. "We didn't put money into the system to account for the explosive growth. Nobody anticipated that we would have 600,000 concurrent users." Even its users pay the system grudging respect, noting that the financial management system was the most improved component and "working as it should," the legislative report said. "Overall, the districts feel that they have invested too much time, energy and money in this system to just throw it out and start fresh," the report added. Noggle said his organization agrees. "Certainly, it's had some problems and difficulties, but it does seem to be improving all the time. They've made a lot of improvements, but they still have a ways to go." The report also said that other states are starting to do what Arkansas has been doing, notably Delaware and Texas, which the report said were in the "initial phases of such a project."
This article was published on Monday, October 25, 1999
-- Homer Beanfang (Bats@inbellfry.com), October 25, 1999