Over the past month or so, I have received some intriguing eMail from school administrators, mostly from small or medium-sized school districts. Without revealing names or locations (to protect the “innocent”), the common issue raised is, “Do public school systems really have to worry about being sued over Y2K?”

It’s actually a pretty good question. After all, public schools don’t produce software or any other product that could fail because it will be unable to accurately process data into and beyond January 1, 2000. Whether or not your students can accurately process data in the 21st century is an entirely different subject.

Anyway, in the lawsuits that have been based on “educational malpractice,” the plaintiffs have been unable to break new legal ground and establish any foundation for school district liability. At first glance, there do not seem to be any grounds for suing a school system if the computers and software it uses are not Y2K-OK. The Sword of Damocles hanging over the private commercial sector (even companies that are not in the computer business)–stockholder suits against corporations that fail to prepare to do business in the year 2000–doesn’t really apply to school boards and administrators. So where is the risk?

Take this simple test. On second thought, it’s a bit drastic, so you might just want to “think through” this simple test. Turn off all the electricity in your schools and administrative buildings. That takes care of anything that relies on computers (except maybe some emergency equipment that is supposed to come on when the lights go out). What is not working that you can’t do without? Lights, heat?

If that happens next year, you are out of business until it is fixed, but that could happen in a hurricane or severe snowstorm. The object of this mental test is not to see whether you need to harass the power company about Y2K. Just suppose you are open for business: What kind of computerized systems can really get your “customers” mad enough to sue you if they fail?

Classroom computers that students use to enhance their learning process can fail without engendering a serious liability risk. After all, that’s why you have teachers and books and paper and pencils and blackboards and chalk. In other words, you have a back-up system that will keep the learning process going despite Y2K.

This is a prime example of a Y2K contingency plan, which is what this column is really about: a manual, non-computer-dependent alternative that will keep things going until you finally get your computerized systems fixed. The key is to make sure that you have viable alternatives and practical contingency plans for how to use them in case the Y2K demons strike down your automated systems.

So where are you most vulnerable to lawsuits? Paying employees and vendors is probably your biggest potential for legal woes. Make sure you can write manual checks if you have to or outsource the process on an emergency basis. And while you’re at it, get out the green eye shades and make sure you (and your Bob Cratchitt Y2K Back-Up Team) can keep books until the hard drives begin to whine again.

There are subtle ones, too. You want parents and their lawyers swarming outside your office with lethal weapons? Be unable to provide transcripts and letters of recommendation to colleges for your seniors who will be busy doing applications as we roll into Y2K. If your transcripts are computer generated, one simple contingency plan is to produce hard copies for all seniors before Y2K.

I could go on at length (and will certainly look for eMail from you as you build your contingency plans), but here are a few simple thoughts for you to mull over. 1999 is half gone, so if you haven’t addressed and fixed your Y2K problems, your No. 1 priority now is contingency planning. Get your best staff (and student) brains together and have a “Y2K Disaster Brain Storming Session.” Do the “Lights Out, Computers Down” test and then think up ways to get the job done without computers.

It’s fun, and it may keep your Y2K lawyer bill way down (remember: lawyers charge, win or lose!). And don’t forget the poster board and markers to keep score for the New Year’s basketball tournament when the fancy electronic scoreboard the alumni purchased a few years back hiccups and dies.