Monday, September 27, 2010

TOP STORY >> Going digital, despite critics

IN SHORT: Although much maligned, PCSSD relies on new technology for efficiency.

By John Hofheimer
Leader senior staff writer

Accurate tracking of district assets, including textbooks, good communication between administrators, board members and patrons, and transparency are among the many challenges facing Supt. Charles Hopson’s new administration at Pulaski County Special School District.

Hopson believes that technology can help address those issues. Toward that end, he brought Derrick Brown with him from Portland, Ore., as his chief technology officer to help make informed choices on technology.

Brown says he’s already found efficiencies in technology—some of which will require initial investment—which may save the district money in the long run.

iPads For BOARD

Hopson is seldom seen without his Apple iPad, and now the district has purchased 20 iPads—that’s $12,580—one for each school board member and one for each member of his cabinet.
The iPads are blocked from importing and running recreational or other applications (apps) such as iTunes and games.

What they will do is allow school board members and administrators to get and send e-mail to each other and to parents and other patrons, and to track those e-mails.

A parent complaining about a leaky classroom roof can e-mail his or her board member who can forward that email to Col. Derek Scott, who is executive director of operations, Brown explained.
Through new school board specific eBOARDsolutions, all also will have searchable access to minutes of the school board meetings, school policies, the school calendar and other documents, Brown said.

“The iPads will have email capability and real-time availability,” he said. “The biggest advantage is to the patrons.”

The board members, administrators and cabinet members receiving the iPads must sign a two-page user guideline.

The district had purchased laptop computers for the board members and cabinet members, but some board members don’t have access to high-speed Internet at home and because in the past board members Mildred Tatum and Gwen Williams had run up hundreds of dollars worth of use and roaming fees on Blackberry-type phones the district paid for, a district policy prohibits paying for board member smartphones.

Brown said the iPads cost $629 each with a $15 a month data fee. The iPads will work both on wireless Internet signals, or where there is none, on cellular phone signals, which are pretty much everywhere.

The previously purchased laptops will replace the next laptops that would have been purchased for general use in the district.

The iPads should connect automatically with the wireless Internet at the PCSSD Central Office, which is where the board meetings are held. “Phone calls are great,” Brown said, “but where is the documentation? All our board members go to our schools. If they see something in their schools, they have a tool in their hand to report problems. Send an email. It’s traceable and trackable.”

BOOKS V. iPads?

The teachers’ union and their allies are critical of the purchase of iPads at a time when the district has only recently emerged from fiscal distress and when not all students have all the books they need.

Students will have the necessary textbooks soon, according to Communications Director Deborah Roush. “It’s not a financial issue,” she said, but rather an issue of reorganization and communication.

For instance, some schools may not have enough eighth-grade math books, while others may have stacks of excess in the storage room. That’s exactly the kind of thing that can be better tracked with the use of iPads or through computer programs, Roush said Monday.

“We have a (data base) inventory system for the libraries,” Brown said. “We can scan books in and out. It’s a logistical challenge, but we can do that with the textbooks,” he said.

It will require district personnel and volunteers in the near future to go room-by-room and closet-by-closet throughout the district and log the number of books available and where they are.


Before Hopson was hired, the district already had purchased Web-based digital school board communication software and laptop computers with which to use it, but now that Hopson has his team in place, board members are being trained to use both the iPad and the new dedicated school board software, Brown said Tuesday.

“In March the board decided to go green,” Brown said. “They wanted to go away from the thick binder (of monthly board meeting agenda books) and they purchased eBOARDsolutions.”

So the board already had committed to a first-year licensing fee of $24,325 to allow the digital communication, plus a one-year renewal option for $6,000, Brown said.

“Right now, we can’t print enough (inch-thick agenda books) for everyone,” Brown said. “How do we run a district of this magnitude—a $250 million business?”

“I ask myself, ‘How do I best meet the needs of the superintendent and the board?’” Brown said. “I’m asking the process questions. How do we do what we say we’re going to do? Let’s get all the right stakeholders around the table and let’s figure the total cost of ownership. How does it affect teaching and learning or keeping information up to date?”


“We’re doing printer/copier assessment,” he said. “We have printing capabilities in all our offices, but it’s a hodgepodge. They each had a budget and bought what they thought they needed. The toner runs out and there’s no money in the budget. Or it breaks.

“We’ve pulled in two global venders to determine the needs. Then we’ll send out requests for proposals. We want a plan that is sustainable and standardized.”

Brown said they did that for 87 schools in the Portland district from which he and Hopson came.
Right now, the district has several different makes and types of printers spread across the district, each taking its own kind of ink cartridges and service and repair.

Computers, printers and other such things will likely be bought under state purchasing agreements.

“We want to know the total cost of ownership and the return on investment. Venders will bring information back to us.”

Brown is putting all administrators and employees with district-owned and paid cell phones on the same plan with the same company.

“We did an assessment with (Chief Financial Officer Anita Farver) and found a considerable amount of roaming charges. Every phone wasn’t on the same plan. With Verizon, we’re consolidating our phones, deciding who needed phones, and we are reducing costs by about $15,000 annually,” Brown said.

eBOARDsolutions software, once in use, will allow district personnel to pull together agenda packets and supporting information much more quickly.

The public and the board can more quickly find historical information without requiring time and effort of school personnel.