When information systems personnel in the Wichita Public Schools realized they were operating on a mainframe computer that would shut down after Dec. 31, 1999, they were faced with a decision familiar to many districts: Should they replace their mainframe system or make the transition to a new client/server system with new software?
“We had alternatives to client/server networking, but none were very palatable, given the time we had,” said Ron Kletchka, a member of the district’s information systems department. “It has turned out to be a pretty good fit. We accomplished a lot in a very short time, considering the learning curve with users and the data-processing staff. We had to learn new software and new operating techniques.”
The school district had operated on the mainframe computer for more than 20 years, yet the switch to a more advanced system needed to be done in a matter of months. New software was also necessary. “We had almost simultaneous implementation,” said Don Adkisson, finance director for Wichita Schools. “Both the hardware and software needed to be up and running in time for our new fiscal year, beginning July 1, 1999.”
The software selection process
When the Business Services Department learned of the computing challenges ahead, it created a committee to determine the district’s specific needs. Committee team members included Kletchka and Adkisson (chair), Linda Jones, financial services; Barbara Phillips and Kathy Boesen, accounting; Vickie Foss and Carolyn Stevens, purchasing; Kim McCoy, budgeting; Deborah Boyer, supply/inventory/fixed assets; Vergene Fromm, technical assistant/business services; and Tish Burns, MIS department.
“We had good people on our committee and were well-represented by end-users and data processing,” said Kletchka.
The primary problem posed to the committee, explained Adkisson, was that the “old system was linked to several others, along with some home-developed systems. This arrangement prevented us from simply updating our financial system. We were forced to think about an all-encompassing system.”
First, the committee determined the modules and features needed for such a comprehensive system. It needed to (1) run in a true client/server environment and on a Microsoft Windows NT network; (2) include all the modules needed to do business; and (3) include provisions for breaking apart budgets for individual school buildings from the overall district budget. And, of course, the computer system had to be user-friendly.
This detailed “needs document” became the basis for a Request for Proposal (RFP) that was sent to 40 software and hardware vendors. The committee then took bids, held a mandatory bidders’ conference, and evaluated vendors based on demonstrations and site visits.
“We needed another demo from contending vendors that actually allowed us to play around on the system to see how the screens worked,” said Adkisson. “We knew many of the financial systems out there weren’t as complete as we needed them to be.” A second round of demonstrations led the district to Systems Consultants Inc. (SCI) of St. Louis.
Wichita had some unique needs for a school district, one of them being inventory management.
“Not many school districts are big enough to have a central warehouse with central receiving, but we are,” explained Adkisson. “We use a carousel system and need to be able to integrate our stock orders into this system.”
Once the system was implemented, district officials worked with SCI to conduct training for Wichita Schools employeesspecifically, the committee team members. Subsequently, each team member trained his or her own staff. A temporary testing environment (intended for three to four months) was established so the data processing staff could get accustomed to the different screens and formats.
“We’re in the process of restructuring our account structure, and that will take some getting used to,” said Adkisson. “We had the same account structure for 11 years and everyone had it memorized. The new account structure follows state guidelines more closely.”
Dividends: Increased productivity and independence
The new software system is helping eliminate redundant data, because it incorporates a relational database. For example, on the old mainframe, a vendor number could have been stored in six or seven different records. This took up more space on the server. With a relational database, the information is stored in one place, and users link to it from various screens and reports.
Eventually, the entire Wichita School District will be linked to the central office on a Windows NT network. Each school will be able to issue purchase and stock requisitions and generate monthly reports for themselves.
“This will definitely decrease paper flow and increase our overall efficiency,” said Adkisson. “There are always positives and negatives, but that’s all part of change. Nine months to a year from implementation, I foresee numerous benefitsreducing the paper flow and giving people at individual buildings more control over their daily operations.”
Most computer systems don’t go up without some challenges. Wichita is no exception. The district’s concerns included the new client/server environment and seven major system implementations.
In certain instances, a client/server system can be more maintenance-intensive compared with a mainframe. For example, sometimes each user’s PC must be updated with a newer version of a desktop program, rather than accessing it in a mainframe environment. Also, with client/server computing, the information is immediately at the users’ fingertipswhich can be a help or a hindrance to a district, depending on how much training end-users have. The new system also has potential to be scary for the users, but for Wichita Schools, systematic follow-up training is helping staff master the system.
“Overall, it’s a good system,” explained Kletchka. “The users can take more responsibility and ownership of the system. This can be overwhelming at first, but it’s key to improving productivity.”
“Bottom line: We will be able to establish standards and increase our user base,” said Kletchka. The Wichita district has about 30 users in administration and plans to add 20 to 30 more before the end of the year. The district plans to migrate a machine out to each school for requisition purposes.
In the meantime, the district is drawing upon its experience to help other school systems facing similar technology challenges. Two other Kansas school districts have joined Wichita to form a user group: Kansas City School District and Lawrence School District. The city of Blue Springs, Mo., has also participated. Attendance at each meeting varies, depending on where and when the meeting is held. Adkisson said they hope to increase the group’s membership so meetings can be held in different regions of the country.
The typical format of the meeting consists of a list of discussion topics and conference call with SCI technical support staff or management.
“This user group gives us an opportunity to share information with other users,” explained Adkisson. “We are all very functional users, so if someone comes up with a solution to a problem or suggestions for improving a process, we all benefit. We can learn more about what we can do to improve our organization.”
Wichita Public Schools
Systems Consultants Inc.