Developers of office administration software are finally targeting school districts, and administrators say these new systems hold great promise for improving operational efficiency and spotting districtwide trends.

By transferring data automatically from one department’s database to another’s (even if competing software is used), these programs enable staff members to make decisions faster and to base those decisions on more reliable information. Thus, departmental and school-level administrators can continue to use the software they prefer, while avoiding the tremendous duplication of data entry that is common in school systems today.

When creating a single administrative network, here are a few things to keep in mind:

1. Try to overlay the new system on top of the old system, rather than removing the old;

2. Watch out for changing accounting software that inadvertently runs afoul of county or state rules;

3. Make sure the new system functions smoothly with your state department of education’s system;

4. Visit a school or district that is using the software you are considering;

5. Think of day-to-day problems you want solved, and find out if the system can do the job; and

6. Be wary of vendors who promise they can “do the impossible.”

The early experience of New York’s Ballston Spa Central School District indicates the potential benefits of one type of new system. When a new student enters Ballston, the student’s information is entered only once into the system, and yet it is available to a multitude of staff members: bus route schedulers; teachers; principals; librarians; and others. Ballston is a pilot site for the Schools Interoperability Framework (http://www.schoolsinterop.org), an industry initiative that includes several big-name software developers, such as IBM, Microsoft, and Apple.

Another option is to rent software applications through an application service provider, or ASP. Two advantages of ASPs are: (1) software is updated automatically; and (2) the level of customer support usually is very high, as companies have an incentive to encourage renewal of contracts.