Microsoft names new CEO, vows to fight breakup:

In the wake of management maneuvers at the world’s largest software company, a spokesman told eSchool News the appointment of Steve Ballmer as new CEO of Microsoft would have no adverse impact on the School Interoperability Framework and said the reorganization, in fact, would enhance the company’s ability to serve K-12 education.

Educators from coast to coast were keeping a close eye on moves at Microsoft, because an increasing percentage of school computers use Windows operating systems and because the company has played a leading role in an interoperability initiative designed to ensure the compatibility of all major categories of school management software.

On Jan. 13, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates promoted Ballmer, his longtime friend and company president, to chief executive officer of the software giant that Gates co-founded.

Gates, who stepped aside as chief executive, will remain chairman and will also take over the newly created position of “chief software architect.”

Though Gates has focused more of his efforts on his vision for Microsoft and the computer industry in recent months, the Microsoft announcement did not necessarily mean he is giving up any power in the company he co-founded in 1975 with Paul Allen.

Some observers speculated that the move was intended to position Microsoft to weather a potential breakup of the company proposed informally by the U.S. Justice Department just days before the announcement. As sketched out by Justice Department sources, the plan would break Microsoft into three separate companies.

Ballmer wasted no time in describing his position on the company’s federal antitrust woes.

“I think it would be absolutely reckless and irresponsible for anyone to try to break up this company,” Ballmer said at the news conference announcing his appointment. “I think it would be unprecedented, and I think it would be the single greatest disservice that anybody could do to consumers in this country.”

Microsoft is being sued by the Justice Department and 19 state attorneys general for alleged antitrust violations, such as squeezing Netscape Communications Corp. out of the web software market and forcing such companies as America Online Inc. and IBM to use its software instead of its competitors’.

In its defense, Microsoft has said that the industry is constantly evolving, and that its past actions did not damage its competitors. On Jan. 13, Ballmer and Gates pointed to the proposed merger of America Online and Time Warner Inc. as evidence that competitors were thriving.

With Gates remaining as chairman and taking on the role of “chief software architect,” the company hopes to create a new software platform that uses the internet to deliver personal data to any device, wherever the user happens to be.

Microsoft’s sudden emphasis on this new generation of software—which would be delivered across high-speed internet connections—gives some credence to its arguments during its government antitrust trial that it will face unprecedented competition.

Gates offered an alternative explanation for the management move. He took the action, he said, so he can return “to what I love most—focusing on technologies for the future,” he said. Over the past year and a half, Gates has turned over much of the day-to-day operations of Microsoft to Ballmer.

Microsoft has made Gates the wealthiest private individual in the world, with a fortune estimated at more than $80 billion. Meanwhile, his company has become the dominant force in the software industry, with its Windows operating systems on more than 90 percent of personal computers.

Gates said he planned to dedicate all of his time to fashioning and promoting the “next generation” of Microsoft’s flagship product operating system. At press time, the latest version, Windows 2000 for business computers, was being readied for release.

Gates said he especially wants to develop software services that will be hosted on the internet and made part of future versions of Windows.

Microsoft is working to make its popular software, especially its Office suite of business programs, available over the internet, in addition to the traditional way of loading it onto individual personal computers.

Gates described the move as “a personal decision, one I have discussed with Steve and our board of directors for some time.

“Steve’s promotion will allow me to dedicate myself full time to my passion—building great software and strategizing on the future and nurturing and collaborating with the core team helping Steve run the company.”

Ballmer will retain his title of president. He also was set to take a seat on Microsoft’s board of directors, effective Jan. 27.

“I’m certainly honored and very, very excited about the opportunity,” Ballmer said.

David Wu, a financial analyst at ABN Amro in San Francisco, said there are few differences between Ballmer and Gates.

“Other than the fact that Steve Ballmer is less rich than Bill Gates, those two are Siamese twins,” Wu said.

Ballmer, 43, was appointed president of Microsoft in July 1998, giving him direct responsibility for improving the performance of all of the company’s divisions, as well as customer satisfaction. The son of Swiss immigrants, Ballmer grew up in Detroit, where his father worked for Ford Motor Co.

He was brought into the company in 1980, by Gates, whom he met and became friends with when both attended Harvard University in the 1970s. Ballmer was Gates’ best man when he married Melinda French in 1994.

After Gates hired Ballmer, the two reportedly had some rocky times. One anecdote says that in the spring of 1985, as Microsoft’s deadline to produce Windows slipped further and further behind, Gates called Ballmer into his office and threatened to fire him if Windows wasn’t on the shelves by the end of the year (although few people believe Gates, with a notoriously bad temper, was ever serious about firing Ballmer).

Windows was ready by November.

Along with Ballmer’s promotion, Gates announced that Microsoft would develop the Next Generation Windows Services, which will power new products and services over the internet. Microsoft wants to use the internet to transmit data to any device, including computers, cell phones, handheld computers, home electronics—and gear that has not yet been invented.

The new internet-based Windows services will be developed over the next two or three years, with developers getting the first detailed view of Microsoft’s strategy this spring, Gates said.

Microsoft Corp.

U.S. Justice Department


Free web service helps schools announce ‘snow days’

A new web site,, is dedicated to announcing the beloved snow day. Internet users can plug in the name of a school district and find out whether a school is closed, instead of waiting for the school name to scroll across the TV screen or be announced on the radio.

To be included, though, public and private schools have to sign up for the free service. In the site’s first full winter season, thousands of schools from Pe Ell, Wash., to Washington, D.C., have joined.

“You can roll out of bed, hit a button, see if the cancellation is there, then rollback over and go back to sleep,” said Craig Younkman, superintendent of the Lake Orion, Mich., Community Schools, which has recently joined the service.

It doesn’t matter what hour a superintendent makes the decision to close schools—the information will be distributed as soon as school officials post it.

Using a private password, a superintendent can make the posting from any computer with web access.

Parents and students also can choose to be notified directly by eMail.

“The goal is to make this as fast and easy as possible for schools and parents,” Jim Candor, vice president for new media at AccuWeather, told the Detroit Free Press. The national weather forecasting agency runs Candor said about 1,000 schools a week become site members. Advertisements help pay for the site.

Site administrators are working to prevent the system from overloading and locking during big snowstorms, when potentially millions of people may log on during a short time span.

There’s also some concern about hackers, which is one reason superintendents have passwords.

School officials using the site say they will still post closings by TV and radio.


State agents crack down on internet sales of cigarettes to kids

The attorney general and agents for the state of Washington have announced a crackdown on internet sales of tobacco products to kids.

Agents on Dec. 21 sent cease-and-desist orders to five online tobacco merchants for selling “bidis” to children from age 12 to 17. The sales practice was confirmed in a multistate sting operation by 17 state attorneys general.

The hand-rolled, candy-flavored cigarettes, made primarily in India, are a greater health hazard than regular cigarettes, said state Attorney General Christine Gregoire, who helped negotiate a multibillion-dollar settlement between the states and the American tobacco industry last year.

“Washington state has a zero tolerance for selling tobacco to minors,” Gregoire said. “We will not stand for tobacco being sold to children, whether it comes from a local retailer or over the internet.”

Washington’s internet sting operations were conducted by two children, using false names, with a state credit card. They made purchases, totaling between $30 and $60, from each of the companies. Gregoire said the underage youths were never turned down and were seldom asked their age.

The five merchants are Ziggy’s Tobacco of Massachusetts, Durango Smoke Shop of Colorado, The Tobacco Shop of Indiana, Uptown Cigar Company of New York, and Calabash Habana Cigar Cafe of Maine. None had any immediate comment.

Gregoire said bidis (pronounced beedee) come in strawberry, chocolate, grape and other flavors children would like. The smokes must be puffed more frequently than regular cigarettes to keep them from going out. This subjects smokers to more tar and nicotine, and bidis already have three times more nicotine and five times more tar than regular cigarettes, she said.

Erik Mertens, a junior at Kennewick High School, said the industry has “played kids for fools … and now we’ve got people over the internet selling cigarettes that taste like strawberry soda or a chocolate bar. Any junior high kid with a computer and a modem can order them.”


Wyoming college earns kudos for its teacher preparation

The University of Wyoming College of Education’s use of technology in preparing future teachers is gaining national attention.

Charles Ksir, College of Education dean, and assistant professor Guy Westhoff showcased the university’s program at the National Conference on Teacher Quality in Washington, D.C., Jan. 10-11.

Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, the conference brought together teams of education leaders from around the country to create plans for teacher education in their communities.

Wyoming’s use of technology was driven largely by necessity, Ksir said. College of Education majors benefit from early experiences in an actual classroom setting, but the long distances between Wyoming’s communities make providing such exposure difficult, he said.

In the early 1990s, College of Education administrators and faculty introduced compressed video to the teaching process. With support from a U.S. West Foundation grant, the University of Wyoming set up a statewide network of wired classrooms for faculty to deliver classes to teachers in the field. Forty-five of the state’s public schools were involved.

The university’s teacher preparation program has expanded the use of that technology into the educational process. For instance, it uses videotaped teaching sessions that allow students and their faculty to critique classroom performance.

Education students also learn how to use computer technology, including the internet, to enhance learning in K-12 classrooms.

Beginning this spring, university education majors will use PowerSchool, a student management software program being adopted by many Wyoming school districts.

College of Education students also are beginning to create electronic portfolios on CD-ROM for distribution to potential employers and others interested in their work. These portfolios include digitized photographs and other documents, plus digital video clips of the student teaching in an actual classroom, Ksir said.


Idaho schools receive a passing grade on technology

An educational research consultant is giving Idaho’s public schools a favorable review for their progress on meeting most of the goals of a statewide educational technology initiative.

The state has spent $56 million on the initiative in the past five years.

Overall progress has been good, said John Mergendoller of the Buck Institute for Education. But schools have made less progress toward the initiative’s evaluation and systems support objectives than the other six goals because those goals demand expertise rarely found in the schools and require time and money not anticipated, Mergendoller said.

“If statewide information is desired on the implementation and impact of educational technology, it will probably be necessary for the state of Idaho to define a statewide evaluation strategy and fund data collection and analysis,” he wrote in his 102-page report to Gov. Dirk Kempthorne.

“Regional or statewide network support centers could provide important assistance to many Idaho school districts,” Mergendoller wrote.

Kempthorne has authorized Superintendent of Public Instruction Marilyn Howard to distribute to school districts the remaining $3 million of the state’s $10.5 million 1999 appropriation for the technology. That’s because the state appears to be getting benefit from the previous money spent, Kempthorne spokesman Mark Snider said.

Last year, the Legislature gave Kempthorne $100,000 to determine what the educational technology initiative has accomplished. Kempthorne agreed not to spend the $3 million until an independent review was completed.

Mergendoller based his conclusions on visits to 36 schools in 16 school districts and reviews of 48 technology research and evaluation studies conducted in Idaho’s public schools.

There is convincing evidence the technology initiative has been implemented in line with its goals, he said. Teachers are integrating technology, colleges of education are training teachers, and students are learning to be network engineers.

“I believe Idaho school culture is changing from a focus on getting and installing the technology to using it productively,” Mergendoller wrote.


Statewide video network to link all South Dakota schools

South Dakota Gov. Bill Janklow has announced the second phase of a multimillion-dollar partnership with U.S. West that will link South Dakota students and teachers through a new statewide intranet.

U.S. West plans to install videoconferencing and data transfer technology over the next several months that will be available to all of the state’s school districts at a sharp discount, Janklow said.

He said the company would offer South Dakota schools access to more than $17 million worth of data networking and video equipment. Among others, Gateway, VTEL, Cisco, and 3Com reportedly are providing the deeply discounted equipment for the project.

The project eventually will connect all K-12 public schools as part of a statewide data and video intranet to be called the Digital Dakota Network. Through it, schools can share classes with each other or connect to other resources across the nation or the world.

Districts choosing to participate can get high-speed T1 connections to the internet and real-time, broadcast-quality video, he said.

The installation of videoconferencing technology represents the next phase of Janklow’s project to wire all state schools for technology. When complete, the network will give students in small, rural school districts the same opportunities as those attending bigger schools, the governor said.

“An interesting component [to the project] is the initial wiring of the schools,” explained Bob Mercer, Gov. Janklow’s press secretary. “South Dakota used crews of low-security prison inmates to wire the schools” and upgrade all electrical circuits. With free labor, public schools have had virtually no expenses throughout the implementation of this program, Mercer said.

“It’s putting [technology] to use with human beings that’s going to make a difference for the future,” Janklow said. “Every student, no matter where they are in South Dakota, will have access to the best learning opportunities in the world right in their own schools.”

The technology is easy for teachers to use, said Brian Tagney, area director for VTEL Corp., a manufacturer of videoconferencing systems. Teachers can write on a “whiteboard” with a marker, and the image is transmitted on a screen that students in classrooms across the state can see almost instantly.

Documents and other information in a teacher’s notes can be transferred as well, he said.

Setting up the intranet will be a combined effort between the State Bureau of Information and Telecommunications and the Department of Education and Cultural Affairs. The Digital Dakota Network will use asynchronous transfer mode (ATM) switching centers in telecommunications centers throughout the state to transport voice, video, and data at about 275 times the speed of the fastest dial-up modem, Janklow said.

The network also will make it easier for schools to share specialty classes, such as foreign languages, or let a teacher leading a class in American Indian history tap into resources from one of the state’s Indian reservations, he added.

The goal is to have the data-networking infrastructure in place by the end of February and the videoconferencing component done by next fall.

Larry Toll, a U.S. West vice president, said the contribution was part of the company’s commitment to its customers.

“This is the kind of technology that will make South Dakota one community, educationally,” he said.

The state also plans to expand its training program for teachers to help them learn ways to make the new technology work in a classroom setting, Janklow said. The courses will be offered at three new sites this summer—Sioux Falls, Aberdeen, and Rapid City—so more teachers can participate.

Teacher training is one of Janklow’s top priorities, according to press secretary Bob Mercer: “The governor’s Technology for Teaching and Learning Academy has already trained about 20 percent of South Dakota’s teachers during the four-week summer sessions, and that number is expanding to 30 percent this summer.”

Every South Dakota teacher attending the summer institute receives a stipend of $1,000 to be used toward technology in his or her classroom. Last year, network administrators who attended received brand-new network servers for their schools, Mercer said.

The payoff for the program, according to Mercer: Through networked schools, South Dakota students can have access to any information in the world and go anywhere in the world to work, despite their remote locale.

“Location is not an issue when traveling at the speed of light,” he said.

South Dakota web site

Gov. Janklow’s web site


Grant Awards

$18.1 million from the Pennsylvania Department of Education

For the state’s new Safe Schools grant program, more than $18 million to nearly 400 Pennsylvania school districts, charter schools, intermediate units, and vocational-technical schools. School districts will be able to use the money to obtain security technology, hire security personnel, develop violence-response plans, provide staff training, purchase instructional materials, institute school identification programs, address risks to reduce incidents of problem behaviors among students, and establish alternative education programs. Gov. Tom Ridge signed the program into law last spring. The program is a $22 million line item in the 1999-2000 state budget.

(717) 783-6788

$13 million from Schools of the 21st Century

For school improvement grants, $13 million to three clusters of schools within the Detroit Public School System. The clusters, made up of 16 schools, each received grants totaling $3 million to $4.5 million during a three-and-a-half year period to implement their school improvement plans. Each cluster has adopted “best practice” whole-school reform models, developed strategies to engage parents and external partners in the school reform process, and integrated its plans into the three goals of the Schools of the 21st Century Initiative: (1) Personalizing the relationship between students and teachers; (2) Enhancing the relationship between school staff and community members, especially parents; and (3) Redefining the relationship between local schools and the district administration. Common themes on the winning grant applications included the provision of state-of-the-art technology, parental and community involvement, extracurricular developmental programs, and implementation of a range of teaching styles to reach diverse learners. Schools of the 21st Century was formed in response to a $20 million grant from the Annenburg Foundation in 1996. With public and private sector matches totaling $40 million, the $60 million five-year initiative is intended to dramatically improve the Detroit Public Schools system.

(313) 871-3515

$4.95 million from the South Carolina Department of Education

For the Technology Literacy Challenge Fund, a federal program that gives money to the states to administer, nearly $5 million to 40 school districts in South Carolina. The grants, some as much as $125,000 per district, were based on high poverty levels and greatest need of technology improvements. Districts that applied for the grants had to show how they planned to use improved technology in classroom learning, Education Superintendent Inez Tenenbaum said. The grants will provide computers for classrooms and connect them to the internet.

(803) 734-8815

$30,000 in wireless phones and service time from AT&T Wireless Services

For its “Wireless for the Community” program in Arizona, 20 digital wireless phones and 600 monthly minutes of complimentary local airtime to 18 nonprofit organizations in the metro Phoenix and Tucson areas for use throughout the year. Tempe Union High School District, for example, received a grant for its Adolescent Pregnancy & Parenting Program.

(602) 224-2888

$7,008 from the Martha Holden Jennings Foundation

To the Mad River Local School District in Ohio. Two teachers, Debby Root and Marianne Patton, secured the grant money for implementing two computer programs from Advantage Learning Systems (STAR Reading and Accelerated Reader), which attempt to improve reading achievement and incorporate more visual learning into teaching speech and language skills. The programs allow teachers to test students and create easy-to-retrieve databases on each student’s reading level, then measure students’ reading comprehension on assigned books using short computerized tests, so they can assess whether student are reading the books to their capacity. The purpose of The Martha Holden Jennings Foundation, located in Cleveland, is to “foster the development of young people to the maximum possible extent through improving the quality of education in secular elementary and secondary schools in Ohio.” The foundation is “eager to explore new frontiers in Ohio public schools and to promote more effective teaching in those schools.”

(216) 589-5700


Grant Deadlines


Inspired Teacher Scholarships for Visual Learning

This 2-year-old program, sponsored by Inspiration Software Inc., offers scholarships to educators who champion visual learning and the meaningful use of technology in the classroom. Ten awards in the amount of $500 each will be awarded to K-12 teachers in support of ongoing professional development in educational technology. The program hopes to give teachers the money they need to receive higher-level technology training to bring back to their classrooms from workshops, conferences, or technology institutes. All award recipients will be notified by March 31.

Deadline: Feb. 15

(800) 877-4292


Technology Opportunities Program

This year, about $13 million will be awarded through this program from the U.S. Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration. Formerly known as TIIAP, the Technology Opportunities Program is a highly competitive program that awards matching grants for innovative projects using advanced telecommunications and information technology, and is especially interested in projects developed by smaller, locally based organizations that represent technologically underserved communities across the United States. The average award is $350,000 and lasts two or three years. For more information, contact Stephen J. Downs, Director, or eMail

Deadline: March 16

(202) 482-2048

Excellence in Teaching Cabinet Awards

Sponsored by Curriculum Associates, the Excellence in Teaching Cabinet Award is in its third year and is seeking proposals that demonstrate a desire to make classrooms better learning environments through the use of innovative tools, including technology. Projects should last from three months to one year. The three K-8 teachers who win this award will receive cash grants of $1,000, plus $500 in materials from Curriculum Associates. Winning teachers will also serve on the Excellence in Teaching Cabinet. Winners will be notified by May 31, and projects must be implemented in the 2000-2001 school year.

Deadline: March 15

(800) 225-0248

21st Century Community Learning Centers

This U.S. Department of Education program is open to rural and inner-city public schools and consortia to help them plan, implement, or expand after-hours in-school projects that benefit the educational, social, cultural, and recreational needs of the community. Approximately $185 million is available during this round of grants, which are expected to support about 2,000 new centers. The average award is expected to be $375,000 for a grant to support three centers, or $125,000 for a grant to support a single center. Funds can be used to purchase technology, since technology-based learning is among the list of supported activities. For further information, contact Amanda Clyburn or Carol J. Mitchell at (202) 219-2180.

Deadline: March 20



Scholastic’s Ms. Frizzle Award 2000

Scholastic Inc., a global publisher and media company targeting children, has announced the third year of the Ms. Frizzle Award, presented by Microsoft Corp. The program honors proposals from elementary school teachers (K-6) who present creative science education projects that inspire imagination and inquiry-based learning for the new millennium. Eligible teachers must submit a proposal for a project that encourages kids to learn science through hands-on discovery and problem solving. The application must include a description of the classroom environment, a letter of recommendation from a principal or school official, a budget, a timeline, and an implementation plan for the project. Grand-prize winners receive $2,000 cash, $2,000 in educational software from Microsoft, and $2,000 in Scholastic books and educational materials.

Deadline: April 10

(212) 343-6570


Teaching with Technology Grants

Compaq’s Teaching with Technology program provides educators with national recognition for their work, the opportunity to share best practices with other teachers, and a chance to win Compaq products for their schools. The grant program is open to all K-12 educators and 52 winners—one from each state as well as the District of Columbia and the U.S. Defense Department schools—will be selected based on their innovative, effective, and replicable use of technology in the classroom. Winners receive a Compaq desktop PC for their school and get to vie for nine Best of Region spots and three National Model spots. Regional winners receive a Compaq server for their school as well as the desktop PC, and national winners receive a server and PC, as well as an all-expense-paid trip to the National Educational Computing Conference (NECC) in Atlanta from June 26 to 28. Applications, as well as rules and regulations, can be downloaded from the program’s web site.

Deadline: March 15

(800) 88-TEACH

Building Effective Roadmaps for the Information Superhighway

To promote effective internet research skills and media literacy in K-12 education, N2H2 Inc. has introduced a Curriculum Contest in conjunction with the nonprofit Computer Learning Foundation. The contest requires entrants to submit an original curriculum for teaching students internet research and literacy skills, such as how to organize a search for information, how to use internet search tools, how to narrow a search, and how to assess the quality of the information found. Entries should include lesson plans, handouts for students, worksheets, and other information that would enable teachers to replicate the curriculum in their own classrooms. They will be judged on originality, quality of the pedagogy and written communication, and potential effectiveness. N2H2 will award 12 grand prizes of Windows-compatible computers, 12 second prizes of CD-ROM recorders, and 12 third prizes of $100 software gift certificates to winners.

Deadline: April 1

(800) 971-2622


Nail down your next grant with a sustainable project

When funders ask you to address sustainability, I don’t think they’re looking for an Energizer bunny reply—you know, this project will keep going and going and going! However, you must assure them that the project will not come to a complete halt the day the grant period expires.

Sustainability can be a tricky issue to address. In order to respond thoughtfully to any question about it, one must have the vision to picture ways that project activities can be maintained to allow students and teachers to continue benefiting from the positive effects of a project. What this often means, however, is that funding from other sources has to be secured to cover the costs of these activities. And that’s where the tricky part emerges.

Let’s first examine the idea of sustaining project activities and forget about cost for a moment. How can you show a funder that your activities will continue to be implemented with a positive impact after the grant period? Here are some thoughts:

• If your project contains professional development activities for teachers, have you considered making the activities become part of the staff development that is conducted each year for your staff?

• If your project contains activities for preservice teachers, is there a way to build these activities into an already existing curriculum of a postsecondary institution?

• Is it possible to develop training materials that can be used on an ongoing basis in your district?

• If your project contains activities that focus on one curriculum area, is it feasible to expand the activities to other areas over the course of a few years—so that perhaps by year five, the activities are taking place in all curriculum areas in the school?

• If your project involves the development of student portfolios, is it possible to make this a part of every student’s educational experience in your district before they graduate?

• If your project involves your students in a collaborative partnership, is it possible to continue the collaboration on a long-term basis after the grant period is over?

Now, let’s turn our attention to the funding issues. Remember, in most cases, it will not be enough to state that you will “pursue other sources of funding” to keep the project going. You must be as specific as you can be about what the possibilities for continued financial support are. Here are some ideas about how to do this:

• Is your district willing to make some of the maintenance-of-the-project expenses a permanent part of your district budget? This might include security fees, maintenance of telecommunication equipment, or software, for example.

• If your project involves the hiring of new staff members, is it possible to build these positions into your district budget so that perhaps within three years, these will become permanent positions—not just grant-funded ones?

• Is it possible to develop training materials that could be marketed to a larger education audience to help offset some of the expenses?

• Have you contacted any other funding sources, such as local foundations, and asked them to consider funding some of the expenses to continue the project? Have you talked to a local corporation about this?

• Are there any activities in your project that could be turned into fee-for-service activities?

As you address sustainability, keep in mind that it’s important to let funders know you will be working on this from the beginning of the project period. Don’t let it fall by the wayside until the last quarter of the project! And finally, if for legitimate reasons your project is time-limited, make sure you explain this to the readers in your proposal so they fully understand. A “not applicable” response is not a good idea!


Telecommuting sleight of hand

In the old street scam of “find the pea,” the crooked magician hides a pea or other small object under one of three walnut shells or other hemispherical covers. The object, of course, is for the victims to guess the location of the pea after the shells have been shuffled. It is impossible to guess correctly, because the pea has been hidden elsewhere during the shuffle.

Using similar sleight of hand, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (an arm of the U.S. Department of Labor) issued a letter in November 1999 defining employers’ responsibilities for the health and safety of employees who work from home. A month later, after the press and media published alarming news stories, OSHA withdrew the letter. The obnoxious “pea” simply disappeared! Or did it?

The letter was written in response to an inquiry from CSC Credit Services in Texas. It was a standard OSHA reply to a request for information. The first question asked by CSC Credit was, “What is the employer’s obligation within the home work environment?”

OSHA’s answer should send a chill up the spine of every employer who seeks the benefits of allowing workers to spend all or part of their paid hours working at home. The existing OSHA interpretation of the law is: “The Occupational Safety and Health Act applies to work performed by an employee in any workplace within the United States, including a workplace located in the employee’s home.”

But, I hear you object, the letter was withdrawn! True. But the letter was not a proposed rulemaking notice or other prospective policy-making statement. It was clearly labeled an “interpretation” of current OSHA policy.

In other words, the letter was whisked off the table, but the policy remains hidden in OSHA’s back pocket. The broadly worded policy stated that an employer is responsible for “ensuring safe and healthful working conditions for the employee” for “any home-based assignments.”

While it is unlikely that OSHA is going to start inspecting the alcoves where teachers prepare and grade homework assignments, the genie is already out of the bottle. Unless OSHA issues an affirmative ruling that the law does not apply, lawyers representing employees who are injured or become disabled at home when performing work assignments are going to use the “hidden pea” to seek recompense for their clients.

The most obvious potential exposure for school districts would arise under an application of the evolving OSHA standards on working with computers. Already a concern throughout the information technology industry, OSHA’s increasing interest in ergonomics has already produced OSHA publication 3092, “Working Safely with Video Display Terminals.”

The potential for legal exposure for employers who allow telecommuting or performance of regular work assignments at home goes way beyond OSHA. Although OSHA does not have jurisdiction over workers’ compensation or the applicability of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the OSHA letter specifically mentioned these laws and indicated that other federal and state agencies may have rules that cover at-home assignments as well.

Put yourself inside the head of a lawyer who is seeking new ways to afford everything from a new Lexus to college tuition payments. The visions of legal fees are too tempting to drop the issue just because OSHA reacts to some bad publicity by withdrawing its interpretation letter.

Before you push the panic button and halt all telecommuting and at-home work assignments, keep in mind that OSHA can, and hopefully will, clarify its policy in a future rulemaking proceeding. At the same time, it is an area of potential legal exposure that you cannot afford to ignore much longer.

The computer is becoming a fixture in every workplace, including public schools. Working from or at home is one of the great advantages of the portability of information and work products made possible by computers. The phantom OSHA policy may seem like a harmless hidden pea for now. But like the soft-skinned princess in the fairy tale, if we sit on it long enough, it is sure to make its presence felt.