President Clinton on July 15 announced a series of initiatives to help America combat the Year 2000 (Y2K) bug, that ubiquitous computer programming oversight that could wreak technological havoc on the world on Jan. 1, 2000.

Many of the nation’s schools still are vulnerable to the problem. If yours are among them, here’s the real message to you from both the White House and Congress:

You’re on your own.

Some indication of the scope of the remaining problem came from the Council of the Great City Schools (CGCS). The council recently polled America’s 50 biggest school districts. Only half said they were where they should be in terms of fixing or replacing equipment. And only 14 percent of those on-schedule respondents could say they actually had begun testing their newly compliant systems.

Clinton’s warning in mid-July might finally have spurred remedial action. But until recently, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) had set no good example for schools to follow. Ranked among the worst-prepared federal agencies in a Feb. 15 progress report by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB), ED was one of six federal agencies that failed to provide evidence of progress.

Its own problems notwithstanding, ED lately has begun increasing its efforts to warn schools to take corrective actions soon.

“It’s up to individual school systems to verify [that] all their systems are Y2K compliant,” said Donald Rappaport, chief financial officer and chief information officer for ED. That means assessing your inventory, identifying possible glitches, and contacting vendors to rewrite code, doing it yourself, or replacing the equipment altogether, he explained.

The Y2K “bug” is a programming glitch that comes from using a short version of the year in date codes. Date codes are embedded in all kinds of technology, from desktop computers to fire alarms and elevators.

Nobody really knows how extensive the problem might be or how much it might cost to fix it. For school systems, the estimated expenses vary widely. Before the next school year begins, CGCS plans to tally the costs likely to confront its membership–the 50 biggest school districts. But early estimates indicate the costs to schools could be in the billions.

The Los Angeles Unified School District alone, for example, is spending $48.9 million to fix its systems, according to Mark Root, manager of technology and information services for CGCS. But he cautioned that right now it’s impossible to guess how much schools will spend.

Washington is expected to offer schools information and warnings. . .but no money.

President Clinton’s initiatives include establishing awareness campaigns, a Y2K job bank, and “Good Samaritan” legislation.


What schools must do, said David Dexter, outreach coordinator for ED, is to have every piece of technology checked out by the original vendor. For large school districts with many automated procedures, this could be a massive–and expensive–undertaking. Missed calculations could affect entire districtwide payroll, budgeting, and accounting systems.

Dexter and Rappaport don’t see the nation’s school boards taking the problem as seriously as they should. Getting compliant “will cost school systems money,” Rappaport said. “It’s very hard to allocate funds for something that’s so seemingly behind the scenes as the Y2K problem when you’re facing other concerns,” he added.

By now, most schools should be actively working on the problems in their systems. But only 52 percent of the respondents of the CGCS survey said they were in the process of fixing or replacing faulty systems. Only 14 percent of the respondents said their districts are in the final phase of implementation. Those districts should be in “good shape,” said Root.

The CGCS found that most of its member schools have begun at least some effort to become Y2K compliant, Root said.

The CGCS and ED are planning on distributing a manual to help schools with Y2K matters. The document will provide a checklist of Y2K compliance issues and allow schools to gauge their progress relative to similar school districts.

The Council of the Great City Schools

ZDNET’s Y2K Survival Kit