Referendum: Why We Need New School Technology

By on February 17, 2014

Tech-Referendum-BasicsOn March 11, Verona voters will be asked to approve a referendum to fund much-needed improvements to our public school buildings, facilities, security and technology. We’ve written a lot about the first three, but it’s important for voters to understand what the fourth is all about too. The technology infrastructure of Verona schools is 10 years old. When the Verona school computer network was built, technology was an add-on, and wireless was a novelty. Our network foundation is on the verge of crashing, and without the necessary upgrades our schools will stay in 2004.

Under the proposed $16.6 million referendum, $889,086 will be spent on technology. That sounds like a lot of money, but Verona hasn’t made a major investment in school technology in 10 years, even as residents added smartphones and WiFi to their homes. The tech spending would replace the network built in 2003, upgrade the school phone system, add a back-up generator and network back-up, and institute district-wide WiFi, among other things. Specifically, we need things like switches and cables to connect every school building to the new network and we need a back-up system to keep school materials safe during a power outage.

The bulk of the tech spending–$500,000–will go for a new technology backbone, which Cindy Costanza, district technology manager for Verona’s public schools, likened to upgrading an electrical panel when installing central air conditioning in our homes. The existing panel turns on the lights, but adding an air conditioning unit would blow the whole fuse box. Teachers have been incorporating technology in the classrooms to prepare our students for the growing future of technology, engineering and science careers, but are limited in what can be accomplished. We need a bigger backbone.

“What is being replaced works today, but is at end of life, and cannot support the projected increases in network demand,” says  Costanza. “We have reached capacity for what we can do.” In the simplest of terms, this means that we cannot add another computer, printer, projector, or move to wireless devices in the classroom without making this investment.

Although many of us grew up learning in classrooms with chalkboards, the modern classroom relies on interactive “smart” boards. These boards allow teachers to project lessons created on their computers just like you’d show a movie on a screen. This visual learning enhances text book content and encourages collaboration and group discussion among students.

A generation ago, homework was completed alone, on paper, and handed in. In the modern classroom, students work on group projects while collaborating from individual home computers. Their work is submitted via the internet using services like Google Drive, SkyDrive or Dropbox; something the techies call the “cloud.” But to save documents to the cloud, and access them from the modern classroom, a network is needed. Verona’s network cannot handle all of our students using the cloud.

What is this?

Verona parents and grandparents took tests with paper and pencil. Starting next school year, all New Jersey students will have to take a standardized test called the PARCC, which can only be taken on a computer. Verona needs to have a network that can support 2,500 users, which would cover students, teachers and administrators. We don’t have that kind of network now, and without it we cannot even add the computers required for testing.

The money budgeted in the referendum will cover what is needed to make the technology backbone stronger. It will not cover additional computers, printers, computer labs, or educational software. Those expenses will eventually be required but without this improvement in the back bone, the second steps will not be possible. In a recent announcement from President Obama, there is a plan in place with the FCC to upgrade all public schools with wireless access. He continued by saying, “In a country where we expect free Wi-Fi with our coffee, we should definitely demand it in our schools.”

Most of us would not consider using a 10-year-old computer, and willingly upgrade to a new phone every two years if not sooner. Smart televisions, smart phones and tablets that can pick up a wireless signal from almost anywhere are part of our everyday lives. In a world of Wikipedia, Google searches and Siri, we are fairly well connected, and this is where the disconnect between school and home exists. According to Rich Wertz, a math and technology teacher at Verona High School, “technology at home is leapfrogging what’s in schools.”

Over the next few weeks, MyVeronaNJ.com will tell you more about what’s being done with the limited technology in our schools, so our readers can see what could be possible for all students to have once the referendum is approved. Superintendent Steven A. Forte will be holding four meetings to answer questions about the referendum. They will be held on Sunday, February 23 at 5 p.m. at VHS; Wednesday, February 26 at 9 a.m. at FN Brown; Saturday, March 1 at 10 a.m. at Laning; and Wednesday, March 5 at 7 p.m. at HBW.


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5 Comments

  1. Cameron Barrett

    February 18, 2014 at 12:12 pm

    One can only hope that we stop paying $18K/yr for the barely-functional web site SaaS. Any competent designer could rebuild the district web site(s) on top of an open source solution that would cost a fraction of what we’re paying every year.

  2. Tracy Bermeo

    February 18, 2014 at 5:27 pm

    Cameron, thank you for your comment.
    To be accurate, the district pays $13K/year for School Wires, the program the district uses which functions as CMS as well as the platform for the individual teacher’s websites, document and information storage, document sharing, website hosting, and the Friday Folder technology.
    An open source solution would likely offer a lower up-front cost, but would require an additional permanent person on staff to maintain and run the program, train the teachers on new software, and manage the BOE. That cost that would likely be more than the 13K/year that the district is currently paying for School Wires.
    However, given that there could be opportunity to implement new software and upgrade servers once the referendum passes and we have a new backbone, I would ask you this: Can you find us some open source school web site platforms that do what School Wires does, and write us 300 words about their strengths/weaknesses compared to School Wires? If there is a benefit to the administration, the teachers and the students, those options should be explored.

  3. Rich Wertz

    February 18, 2014 at 7:27 pm

    Hi Cameron,

    By way of introduction, I am a teacher at VHS, and help out on some of the technology decisions facing our schools. To add to what Tracy wrote, I can provide some history and perspective on the selection of our current vendor. Many of the concerns raised in your post were weighed in the 2010 selection of our current vendor for our district’s public web presence.

    o the actual cost is approximately $13K/year which amounts to roughly $6 per student per year. This cost covers hosting, backup, and offsite redundancy. Because it is hosted offsite, this frees up other critical system resources, like servers, storage, bandwidth, and most importantly tech staff, for projects which enhance instruction.

    o the system we use is not a website, but a content management system (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Content_management_system), which allows the publishing, editing, and modifying content of our site’s content by about 200 teachers and staff members. There is a significant difference between the cost of developing and especially the cost of maintaining a vanilla website and building a CMS.

    o In evaluating alternatives for the district’s public web presence, we evaluated:

    - a number of open-source CMS, many of which are used by high schools and colleges, including Moodle, Drupal and others

    - building our own CMS via Microsoft Sharepoint, as West Orange has done

    - a number of school-centric CMS which compete with our current vendor

    o Our considerations in evaluating these alternatives were:

    - Limited Tech Staff: We had one tech employee (we now have two) serving 2,200 students and roughly 200 staff members. Given this consideration, solutions which require in-house development and maintenance, such as open-source CMS and Sharepoint are not sustainable

    - School workflow: many of the alternatives we considered were good systems, but were not built for the workflow of K-12 schools.

    - Cost: among the school-centric CMS solutions, our current vendor was among the cheapest and certainly the best value

    - Support : we wanted to make sure that the vendor providing our public web presence had a big footprint in NJ with schools like Verona. Small schools like Verona work closely with other districts like Glen Ridge and Caldwell/West Caldwell to obtain support leverage from K-12 technology providers. When you are a small school district, there is strength in numbers. As we were adopting our current vendor in 2010, several other districts in the area, including Glen Ridge, Caldwell/West Caldwell, West Essex, South Orange/Maplewood adopted the same vendor. More than 200 districts in NJ currently use this vendor for their public web presence

    Feel free to contact me at 973-571-6750 and I’ll be glad to elaborate on the cost/benefit analysis.

    Rich Wertz

  4. Cameron Barrett

    February 18, 2014 at 11:49 pm

    Rich,

    I am very familiar with SchoolWires. I am responsible for the web sites for the Newark Public School system (70+ schools). We currently use SchoolWires. While 100% functional, it leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to extensibility or doing any kind of custom development.

    We are evaluating the option of extending our contract with SchoolWires versus developing our own solution on top of an open source solution. I’d be happy to compare notes sometime.

    From my perspective as a web software developer and front-end designer, there is very little that SchoolWires does that can’t be replicated with an open source solution. In the long run, going with an open solution as opposed to a vendor lock-in solution, you will save money. The vendors are not dumb. They know that most schools do not have the staff to maintain a web site and the technology behind it. But I would argue that there are solutions out there that are easy to maintain that do everything SchoolWires (and other vendors) does for a fraction of the cost. Web site technology and CMS technology is quickly becoming a commodity. Locking yourself into a proprietary vendor solution quickly limits what you can and can’t do with your school web site(s).

  5. Cameron Barrett

    February 18, 2014 at 11:53 pm

    Tracy, you are correct. The amount we pay SchoolWires is $12,700 per year. BOE member Michael Unis reported this to me back in December. My brain incorrectly remembered that figure as $18K/yr. I stand corrected.

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