Poised for the Millennium

AS&U: As the new millennium approaches, where should schools be in preparation for the Y2K issue?

Balsters: I think at a minimum they [school districts] should have assessed all of their internal packages, computers and software. If a commercial package is used, find out if all of the changes have been made. Beyond that, look at things such as software in elevators, and heating and air-conditioning systems, and talk with the manufacturer(s) or maintenance people of those companies to make sure that they have addressed the issue or have a plan to address it. At a minimum, all of us need to know where we stand and at least have a plan for addressing it [Y2K issue] before the year 2000.

Bowers: Sit down with your staff, and identify those pieces of equipment that will be affected, starting with a hierarchy of what has to happen on the first day of school after the first of the year. First, you need to have heating and ventilating. Second, safety issues must be addressed, such as elevators, security systems, fire alarms, stop lights. All of those things have to operate.

Alioto: We are in the business of instructing students, which means we need to be able to get the students and the teacher together in a room where they can teach. This requires a building that is occupiable-that the doors are going to unlock if they are electronically locked; that the building will be heated. In order to heat the building you need the utilities, which I think is the biggest concern. A lot of utilities are out there saying they are not quite sure they are going to be Y2K compliant by that date.

We can manually unlock our buildings. We can get our teachers and students to school as long as we have fuel for the buses. But why bring them there if utility companies are not going to be able to provide power to us to heat our buildings?

AS&U: Are there contingency plans in place in case the utilities cannot provide power to heat your schools?

Alioto: Some districts, especially those in colder climates, have generators in their buildings. But those are short-term solutions.

Bowers: Aren't those [generators] mostly for reserve power for smaller items, such as exiting devices more than to operate the whole building?

Alioto: I've talked with a number of districts that are using generators, and they've got them hooked up to the heating systems, locking mechanisms and emergency lights. Some of them have power that will go to their mainframe. So, if a worst-case scenario happens and your control systems fail in your heating plant, at least you can get your boiler running [with generators] to heat the building.

Wilson: Another issue that school districts need to think about is are your financial institutions going to be up and running the first business day of the year 2000. I have a payroll January 5, and 90 percent of my employees are on direct deposit.

In addition, [school districts] need to be careful that they don't rush to make decisions on software that may not serve their criteria after the year 2000.

Wodarz: I'm in that situation now. We are choosing administrative and student financial packages this year, and we are not Y2K complaint. I would not move my system right now if I didn't have to.

Wilson: School districts need to be careful that they don't throw a lot of money at a problem that, say two years from now, will not be able to meet long-term needs.

AS&U: I gather that you think this issue [Y2K] may be revisited in another year or two, primarily because a lot of districts may be rushing in and getting something that may solve a short-term need but not serve the district long-term?

Wodarz: Smaller school districts probably will feel the effects sooner than larger ones-they will turn to packages that perhaps aren't integrated, that may solve one problem but not address another one.

Bowers: Something a lot of people do not do is test their equipment; put in a future 2000 date when school is not in session to see how the equipment responds.

Wodarz: I think a lot of school districts are doing that, especially those districts that have the staff to do it. But it is getting increasingly more difficult to fill technology jobs. With the amount of certification that is needed, those folks go off and make a whole lot more money in private industry than we are willing to pay them.

AS&U: Regarding the explosion of technology in education, how should schools plan for technology in a quickly evolving and changing market?

Alioto: We need to stop looking at it [technology] as some type of a special activity that is unique and different from everything else. It is one of the needs that has to be prioritized along with such things as what your pupil/teacher ratio is going to be, what your facilities are going to look like, what the grounds are going to look like, and what you are going to spend on textbooks and capital equipment.

[Technology] is competing with all of these other needs. You are not going to solve the technology funding issue on a long-term basis by knocking yourself out trying to chase every grant in sight, because the dollars really aren't there. I look at technology as really another utility that we are putting into our infrastructure. It is a tool and we can't forget that; we have to weigh what its value is compared to other tools that we can put into a classroom.

Wilson: One thing that often is overlooked is the infrastructure-is it there to support what it is you are trying to do? Some companies donate computers and equipment to schools; much of it brand new. I've got some buildings that are 70 years old, and those buildings most likely can't handle having the technology there. It is very expensive to wire [older] buildings. Another issue is who is going to fix these machines when they break.

Bowers: A problem that we all are facing is that whether it [computers] is given to us or it is purchased, we need to know that our buildings can support it. I have found that even new buildings often are not equipped-electrical capacity is not there, suppression is not there, and air conditioning and air quality have not been addressed.

Wodarz: It is important that school districts look at the total cost of ownership [when it comes to technology], which involves scaleability and maintenance of systems. The systems we buy today need to be scaleable for seven to 10 years. So, when I buy a router, I don't buy a router that is going to work today. I go out and spend more money today to buy a router that is going to be scaleable and take cards that I can put in it to run ATM. This way, I know the system will be running in 10 years and I won't have to go back for more money for a router.

Another thing is that more school districts are beginning to lease-purchase [technology]. Leasing is a very good idea, especially in the education market. I never want to buy another computer again. I would much rather lease one every three years. Then I could do a rotation-elementary schools one year, middle schools the next, followed by high schools. After three years, I would start the rotation again.

Alioto: What concerns me about some of the technology lease-purchase arrangements is that schools are entering into these agreements in an era where our ability to tax is being restricted. We have competing monetary needs, and schools that enter into three- to five-year lease-purchase agreements may find themselves in a situation in two years where they have, say, a decline in enrollment. When they must make budget cuts, they can look at staff, they can look at building issues, they can look at maintenance, but they can't look at discontinuing some of their technology budget because they are committed to lease payments. So, some schools, in the interest of filling their buildings with computers, are putting themselves in a position where in times of tightening budgets they are taking away their own ability to make a cutback in that area, and that concerns me.

Wodarz: There are contractual things that you can do. There is the standard 'out' clause. It certainly is not a good option, because you don't want to lose the technology that is in your building by opting out of a lease. If funding is not stable within the district, it is probably a good idea to look elsewhere.

AS&U: Are there cost benefits to leasing vs. buying?

Wodarz: Actually, the total cost of a lease is more than the total cost of a purchase. However, it is the total cost of ownership, not the total cost of purchase, that needs to be considered-staffing, replacement parts, all of those things that go into keeping those systems running is what a lease pays for. If it doesn't work, I can say to my leasing company that my computer is dead, remove it, and they will have a working system in that classroom.

Balsters: So, your lease is all-inclusive, it is not just for the equipment?

Wodarz: I would never do a lease just for equipment.

AS&U: An area that has received much media attention is school security. In a society that seems to be becoming more violent, how can schools better protect people and property without turning academic environments into prison-like environments?

Balsters: First of all, we should recognize that schools-whatever they are doing-are doing a much better job of protecting children than society in general is. A child's chances of being shot in school are much, much less than being shot or injured outside of school. Schools are a safe environment, in spite of the high-profile shootings that happened last spring. Schools have always been concerned with security. That is why, overall, they are safe places.

Wodarz: I think it is a misconception that our schools are not safe. There was a study that just came out that said violence in our schools is decreasing. More students get killed in their parents' automobiles than they do in our schools.

Bowers: While I feel our schools are very safe, one place where we are not doing the kind of job that we ought to is in putting together a crisis plan.

Balsters: Several districts in Kansas have developed flip charts. You have probably seen them, they have been around a long time. They are placed in each room, and the titles are at the bottom-bomb threat, fire, tornado, death of a student and so on. If something should happen, the teacher or the adult in that room would flip it up and there you have what you are supposed to do in that room. It also lists the district's crisis team, who is to be contacted, who you refer media to.

Wodarz: Another area school districts typically do not do a good job in regards to security is technical security. We put big signs up that basically say, 'computer lab this way, please enter and take our stuff.' We allow our people to put labels on their computers with their passwords, or do not use passwords at all. There is a lot of sensitive information that is transmitted, and typically no encryption is used. Schools need to focus more on protecting technology and the information that sits in computers.

There is a great book called "Safeguarding Your Technology" put out by the National Center for Education Statistics on creating good security programs within schools. It deals with physical layouts, network layouts, software protection and other stuff, and it is available free of charge.

AS&U: With dollars becoming scarcer and demands growing, how can schools better address business and funding concerns in the new millennium?

Balsters: Two areas I feel will impact public-school budgets are charter schools and vouchers. The thing that gets lost much of the time is identifying their purpose-are they funding mechanisms or are they educational mechanisms? I'm not sure that many of the programs that are presented have demonstrated an educational purpose for all of the kids in the state. Most of our state constitutions say that the state is responsible for educating kids. Then, charter-school legislation, or a voucher or choice program, is passed that seems to fly in the face of educating all of the kids. I think this is a real problem that public schools are going to face. We are already facing it now, and I think we will continue to face it in the future.

Wilson: One thing I think this trend has done is it has forced us to get our act together. In that way, I think it is good. The real challenge is how to compete [with charter schools] under the constraints [public schools] have.

Bowers: Another issue is that [charter schools] do not have to provide the services that [public schools] have to provide. We should have an equal playing field, but we don't.

Alioto: There has been a misperception that public schools are doing a terrible job. It is kind of humorous because the same people touting how well our college students are doing are saying that school districts are doing terribly. Well, where do those kids that are in those colleges come from? They came from the public schools.

I agree, we are not on an equal playing field [with these new initiatives]. The biggest difference is that we are having money taken away from us, and it is flowing into these charter schools, which do not have to take care of special-needs students, or deal with 504 issues. A lot of them do not even have to deal with some of the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) guidelines. To add salt to the wound, we have to pay to transport them to the charter school.

AS&U: So you see this as a major drain on future funding and budgeting?

Wilson: Yes, but we are going to have to change our business. We cannot sit back on the sideline and not be an active participant in whatever the dynamics are. You cannot say that you are against competition. You have to say, 'Okay, if we have this competition, let's make it fair.'

Alioto: If [charter schools] had to take care of the mandated issues that we do, they would get out of the education business fast.

Balsters: A larger concern is the whole issue of competition. When you have competition, you have winners and losers. Education should not be about having losers anywhere. The argument many charter-school and voucher proponents make is that competition is good. I agree that competition does make some things better, but it is still the basic assumption of competition that you are going to have winners and losers.

Wilson: I think that what we have to do is capitalize on what works. And if it is working in your district and it is successful, then maybe I should borrow what you have instead of trying to reinvent the wheel.

Wodarz: But if we are really competitive, am I going to give it to you? I believe that we will need to compete, we will need to change the way that we educate children, and we will need to drastically look at the way we educate teachers to teach and the opportunities that we provide to students. People are drawn to charter schools for a variety of reasons. Among them are small groups, materials, the ability to be flexible, and the ability to change quickly to adapt to the continuing changes in society and structures. In public-school systems, we have been unable to adapt very quickly.

AS&U: The deteriorating state of the nation's education infrastructure has been a major concern for a number of years. As facilities continue to age, how can schools improve their environments for learning without breaking the budget?

Balsters: Something districts might be able to do, and some already are doing it, is to look at cooperative projects with other local entities-city, county, college or university-depending on the facility that you may need to construct or renovate. Get together with them and say, 'we need a gymnasium that we may only use half the time during the day, and here is a place for you to run a recreational program in the evenings and on weekends. Let's get together and construct it rather than having a facility for the school and a separate one for the city or county.'

Alioto: I think the facilities issue is the same as the technology issue we talked about earlier. What it comes down to is that we have a pot of money that is being limited by people who we don't control, and we have to divvy that up in a way that is balanced. So, yes, you need your schedules on replacement of technology, on replacement of facilities, on replacement of textbooks, and you have to balance all of those needs. If you take money from the budget and put it into facilities, that means money will be taken away from something else. We have a limited pool of money, and our job is to balance those needs.

Wodarz: And then some states are stepping in, like Arizona, and attempting to recreate the funding formula so it reallocates funds from the wealthy schools to the poorer schools.

Wilson: We did something this year in Houston that has never been done. We got the newspaper's editorial board to write a very simple editorial to the public telling them how state funding works. And you know what, it helped.

Alioto: School funding has degenerated into a very basic political issue. We have a greater and growing populace of senior citizens as compared to younger, child-rearing-aged people. It seems as though seniors care more about protecting social security than improving education. Seniors vote and, therefore, have a great deal of political influence. That doesn't mean that I believe that all older people don't care about public education, but it's certainly not first on their representative organizations' political agenda.

Nicholas C. A. Alioto, executive director for business services, Eau Claire School District, Eau Claire, Wisc. Nick is responsible for overseeing the finance, food service, facilities and transportation departments, as well as managing building programs and other auxiliary services. He is vice chair of the ASBO International and chair of the Wisconsin ASBO accounting committees.

Robert O. Balsters II, assistant superintendent for business, Seaman Unified School District 345, Topeka, Kan. Bob is responsible for budgeting, purchasing, and overseeing facilities and related operations. He is vice-chair, school finance committee, for ASBO International.

John P. Bowers, director of plant services, Kentwood Public Schools, Kentwood, Mich. John oversees the maintenance and operations, custodial, grounds and supply delivery, in addition to managing a multi-million-dollar new construction program, for the district. He is chair of ASBO International's facilities project team.

Ronald M. Wilson, assistant superintendent for budgeting and financial planning, Houston Independent School District, Texas. Ron is responsible for the district's $1.3 billion budget, financial planning, revenue enhancement and property management. He serves as vice-chair, management techniques committee, for ASBO International.

Nan Wodarz, assistant superintendent for educational services, West Chester Area School District, Pa. Nan is responsible for overseeing technology, student assessment, grant writing, home schooling and food services programs for the district. She serves as vice-chair, information systems committee, for ASBO International.

More than a year and a half has passed since I started investigating the impact that embedded systems will have on physical-plant services throughout Texas A&M University in the year 2000. While my level of stress has decreased, I am still worried that some of our major systems may not perform as we anticipate, even after we have tested them. At this time, we have completed the inventory, turned the clocks back on some non-critical systems, and conducted most of our testing on critical utilities systems.

We have made major improvements since March 1998, which is when we started preparing for the Y2K transition. At the time, I chaired two Y2K committee meetings with department heads and information-systems experts in the physical plant to develop a tentative plan of action. The tasks of the Y2K committee include developing equipment inventories, priority setting, testing, implementing and overseeing corrective actions, and documenting all initiatives.

Another role of the committee is to solicit Y2K strategies from critical service suppliers, such as electrical- and gas-delivery companies serving the university. In addition, the committee will develop and carry out contingency plans relative to any possible critical-system failure to determine the location of embedded systems.

While Texas A&M has made significant progress, the university is not where I would like for it to be. Developing a campus contingency plan may become our most difficult task. To complete it, we must get input from all of our customers on their critical systems. The difficulty arises in compiling the right group of people to help decide how to set priorities. The contingency plan should address major system outages (power, natural gas, water, wastewater, fire alarms and controls).

Some good news for universities is that January 1, 2000, happens at a time when most students, faculty and staff are on holiday vacation. The bad news is if you have a big research mission, since researchers often work 24 hours a day, their requirements must be considered in the contingency planning.

In your initial contingency brainstorming sessions, start with the worst case, and then work your way toward a middle-of-the-road risk analysis. The worst-case scenario will make the tasks impossible to manage and complete. If you try to plan under conditions of no power, natural gas or water at the same time, you will never get there. Let senior leadership know what to expect from your resources, and if they want full backup, let them know cost implications.

A helpful guidebook on Y2K issues and potential solutions is available at www.dir.state.tx.us/y2k/resources/guide2000.htm.

The Year 2000 problem, which threatens to render various building systems inoperable midnight, December 31, 1999, is well-documented. Educational institutions are making preparations to ensure that systems with embedded microchips-such as HVAC controls, chillers, boilers, lights and lighting systems, elevators, security and safety systems, telephone systems and more-operate on January 1, 2000.

However, one other important date that does not get a lot of attention is September 9, 1999. Many computers will read that date as 9/9/99, which may cause some computers to stop operating. These four numbers were used in early programming days to tell computers they had reached the end of a program. Two websites that may prove helpful to educational administrators charged with addressing Y2K issues are:

-http://y2k.lmi.org/gsa/y2kproducts/. This site, assembled by the U.S. General Services Administration, lists Y2K-compliant and noncompliant products supplied by manufacturers.

-http://www.boma.org/year2000/. This site, by the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA), offers specific information on Y2K issues for building maintenance and operations managers.

As the century draws to a close, colleges and universities are scrambling to ensure that systems and equipment will be Y2K-compliant. Although the severity of potential problems are still questionable, institutions across the country are taking extra measures to make sure that the date change alters nothing.

Updating systems takes time, and time costs money. Colleges and universities can make this task a little less time-consuming by determining which systems already are compliant. Assurance from suppliers and manufacturers that systems and equipment are Y2K-compliant is the first step. The Community College of Allegheny County, Pa., has turned to its suppliers and service organizations to determine which systems could be date sensitive.

"We have gone back to all of our suppliers and manufacturers and gotten letters of assurances that their systems are or will be year-2000 compliant," says Bob Hamilton, director of facilities management.

Specifications made in the last five years are required to be Y2K-compliant, so any systems that were made in that time period are not of the highest concern. But many facilities have systems that date back 25 years, making facility directors and administrators question the cost to update an outdated system.

If there is a question that a product is not Y2K-compliant, it needs to be tested. This can be done by rolling the clock forward to January 1, 2000, to see what happens. Some systems may shut down, go into default position, or do nothing at all. In some instances, only a component may need to be replaced to make the entire system compliant.

Preventing disaster Most intelligent systems are controlled, or at least affected, by a computer chip. The computer chip controls the timing and energy levels of each system according to an internal clock that runs on the last two digits of the year. When 2000 comes, these chips will read the date as 00, and interpret that to mean 1900. For Utah State University, this event could, among other things, knock the university off of the western grid, thus shutting off its electrical source.

"Everything from your telephones to your copy machines will be affected," says Mary Lou Zeller, staff assistant in information and learning resources. "But our biggest concerns are heat and shelter. We have a limited number of places we could send people for food or water."

In many cases, it is more cost-efficient to purchase a new system than to make an old system Y2K-compliant. The facilities team at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University, discovered that many of the air handlers in the air-conditioning system were date sensitive. The system, which is almost 25 years old, will need to be completely replaced to meet the extensive air-conditioning requirements in the state of Florida, according to Charles Fountain, facilities director. "We have to make sure we don't have a capricious control system that will go defunct by the year 2000."

Several colleges and universities have developed task forces specifically for the problem. These task forces are comprised of administrators, faculty and support staff who review letters from manufacturers and research from service organizations. The task force at Utah State University is charged with the sole responsibility of preparing all systems for the Y2K date change.

Utah State's Zeller says the task force currently is testing the university's computers for compliance. In addition to updating systems, the task force has developed a contingency plan in the event that a spot or a system is missed. It is determining, for example, where to send students if the electricity is shut off and how to make an emergency call if the telephone lines won't work.

"Our computer people anticipated this about four years ago," says Zeller. "We are in better condition than those universities that are just now beginning to deal with the problem."

Paying for compliance Updating systems and equipment before the Y2K deadline is proving a challenge for colleges and universities. For most, bringing systems up to compliance is funded through the current facility budget. Colleges and universities that have taken this into account when making budget requests are having a much easier time meeting the deadline requirements.

Utah State University has asked for a separate fund specifically for updating facilities for the new millennium, which is still awaiting a decision from the state legislature. The current budget has been planned around meeting Y2K compliance. Nevertheless, the deferred-maintenance schedule has slowed down as the university attempts to stretch its $45 million budget to update and maintain its 5 million-square-acre campus.

"The priorities are the same," says Darrell Hart, director of physical plant. "Integrity of the building and safety issues are most important. It is a balancing act."

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