A snapshot of the nation’s largest school systems taken by the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) reveals that many aren’t making the grade when it comes to preparing their technology for the year 2000 (Y2K).

No, this isn’t deja vu. Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Education did issue a report saying much the same thing about schools at large. But this latest warning is yet another wake-up call, this time to the school districts serving the largest numbers of students.

At the request of Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, chair of the Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem, the GAO surveyed the nation’s 25 largest school districts about the status of their Y2K compliance. Results of the survey were released at a special Senate hearing Sept. 21.

The mission-critical systems of nine of the 25 districts will not be Y2K compliant until after Nov. 30, if at all, the report said. Only seven of 25 said their mission-critical systems are Y2K compliant and another nine said they expect their systems to be compliant before Nov. 30.

“Will schools still be able to teach students in a safe environment if they aren’t Y2K ready?” Bennett asked at the hearing. He said the answer is unclear and called on schools to redouble their efforts.

Joel C. Willemssen, director of the GAO’s civil agencies information systems, said the study looked at the 25 districts with the largest student populations, excepting cases where the selection would result in a state being represented more than once.

The GAO surveyed the districts about the compliance of six key business functions: administrative systems (personnel, payroll, financial management); student records; transportation; food service; facilities and embedded systems (fire and security, lighting, telephones); and instructional labs (hardware, networks, application software).

Districts that said their mission-critical systems were Y2K ready were New York City Public Schools, Los Angeles Unified School District, Jefferson County (Kentucky) Public Schools, Charlotte-Mecklenburg (N.C.) Public Schools, Albuquerque Public Schools, Mesa (Ariz.) Unified School District, and Mobile County (Ala.) School District.

Two more districts, Miami-Dade County Public Schools and the Hawaii Department of Education (which also is a school district), said their mission-critical systems would be ready by the end of September.

Districts reporting that their mission-critical systems wouldn’t be ready by Nov. 30 were Philadelphia City School District, Houston Independent School District, Clark County (Nev.) School District, Prince George’s County (Md.) Public Schools, Memphis City School District, Milwaukee Public Schools, Orleans Parish (La.) School Board, Cleveland City Public Schools, and Granite (Utah) School District.

In addition, nine districts—Puerto Rico Department of Education, Chicago Public Schools, Houston ISD, Clark County School District, Prince George’s County Public Schools, Milwaukee Public Schools, Granite School District, Mesa USD, and Mobile County School District—reported that their instructional labs wouldn’t be compliant until after Jan. 1.

None of these districts referred to their instructional labs as mission-critical systems. Several reported that instructional software would be used until Jan. 1, and whatever doesn’t function at that time will be discarded.

Of the 25 districts, only 15 reported having contingency plans in development. Ten of those 15 reported that their contingency plans were completed and five said their plans had been tested.

The road ahead

Some of the districts admitting they wouldn’t be Y2K compliant until after Nov. 30 have their work cut out for them. In the Cleveland Public Schools, for example, only 10 percent of the instructional systems and 40 percent of the food service systems are Y2K ready.

Granite School District in Sen. Bennett’s own state, meanwhile, reported that its administrative systems are Y2K compliant now, but several other systems are not—and some won’t make the Jan. 1 deadline.

Granite officials reported that systems controlling student records and maintenance of facilities should be compliant by next month. They said systems affecting student transportation should be compliant in November.

But systems affecting instructional labs won’t be Y2K compliant until June, six months late, and those affecting food service won’t be compliant until Jan. 2001.

Dale Roberts, the district’s director of information systems, said that dates on computers will be turned back and other modifications will be made to keep them operating past January.

“Kids will still get meals,” he said.

According to the U.S. Department of Education (ED), the GAO survey results are typical of school districts nationwide.

Earlier this year, ED surveyed 16,000 school districts on Y2K compliance, but only 3,500 responded. And only 28 percent of respondents said their mission-critical systems are now Y2K compliant.

The Y2K problem exists because older computer systems stored only two digits of the four-digit year. When the year 2000 comes, many computers could misinterpret that as 1900, causing systems to crash or misinterpret data.