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School officials pushing $1 million information system

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

Clayton County Board of Education members, already grappling with $85.2 million in proposed budget cuts, got a request from Clayton County Public Schools Superintendent Edmond Heatley on Monday to purchase new technology at an estimated cost of $1 million.

The technology, called the Enterprise Portal Development project, is designed to reduce the amount of paper used by school system employees to communicate student achievement to parents, according to a video that was the centerpiece of the proposal given to school board members.

The video described the technology as a convenient, online method for a parent to check his or her child's Criterion-Referenced Competency Test (CRCT) scores, class grades, and homework assignments.

"If we're going to talk about preparing our students for the future, this is the future, so I would love for the board to consider this," Heatley told board members. "We have to consider what are we doing to become what we want to be, from where we are now."

School System Director of Information Systems Tony Rogers said the project would be implemented in three phases. The school board will vote on March 1 whether to approve paying $353,170 for Phase I of the project, which would involve setting up the hard-and-general access systems, and the uploading of forms that parents are often asked to sign for their children.

"That would be done this summer," said Rogers, after the board's work session on Monday. He said

Phase II, which would involve the uploading of additional forms, and security measures, would begin "12 to 18 months after Phase I begins." Phase III, which would involve the resolution of any problems in the system, would begin a year after Phase II begins, he said.

"The parents would be brought in during Phase III," Rogers said. "We want to make sure everything is rock-solid before we bring them in."

School district purchasing records list "Unbound Solutions" as the company that would receive the contract for the project, but no company with that name could be found on the Internet.

The estimated $1 million price tag for the project would be spent over three to four years, according to Rogers. "When you look at it, $1 million is $1 million, but when you look at the savings we'll have over a 5-year period, $1 million doesn't look that significant," he said.

But, the school system does not know how much of a savings it will see by implementing this project, Rogers said, because the district does not know what it is currently spending on printing costs.

"The exact price can't be tallied," Rogers said. "We don't necessarily keep up with how much we're spending on printing, and toner cartridges."

That may pose a problem for school board members, who did not seem enamored with the presentation. School Board Member Mary Baker asked for a cost comparison to see how much money the district is spending to print documents and forms, versus how much it would cost to implement the new system.

"It might even be a wash," she said.

Board Member Charlton Bivins suggested that school officials go to other districts that use the technology to see how successful it has been for them. Member Jessie Goree said she had a problem with spending money on new technology, while cutting back spending on personnel.

Goree also pointed out some past efforts by the school system to go to a paperless document system, including the eBoard system, purchased in late 2008, that has not been fully implemented.

"I would hate for us to purchase this, and then we don't utilize this," Goree said. "If we're going to lay down $1 million, then, we need to make sure everybody is doing their part. We don't need to purchase this just because it's the latest technology."

As Heatley and Rogers pitched the project, a dozen school bus drivers sat in the back of the board room, quietly listening to the proposal. The drivers are part of the group of part-time employees who may lose benefits, such as health insurance, under the school system's proposed budget cuts.

The proposal to spend $1 million on new technology, while planning to cut the part-time employees' benefits was an unpleasant surprise for the bus drivers, said James Ojeda, a 12-year driver for Clayton Public Schools.

Ojeda said many bus drivers work as many as three jobs, and chose to work for the school system to get their full-time benefits, he said. He added that many would likely quit without the benefits.

"We came here expecting them to talk about the budget cuts, but they didn't do that, and then we hear they want to spend extra money on new technology," Ojeda said. "That just doesn't sit well with some people."