A Missouri school system is helping its students make the leap into the digital age by collaborating with the local city government to pool resources for a shared community network.

Consolidated School District 4 and the city of Grandview recently installed an advanced computer network in all their school buildings and city facilities, with the help of Siemens AG, bond money from the community, and dedicated district employees.

District officials agree that the new network is a big step for Grandview, a community that has experienced economic hardships in the past few years.

“The city really went through some tough times when the Air Force base closed here in the early 1990s,” said Chet Neumann, assistant superintendent and chief financial officer for the district. “That was a tremendous blow to the city’s economy. When that happened, the school population … dropped from 8,000 students to less than 4,000. Of course, state aid depends on the number of students, so we really had tremendous financial difficulties, as a result.”

When Superintendent John Martin joined Consolidated School District 4 three years ago, he had three main goals, Neumann said. “First, we wanted to improve academics. Second, we wanted to improve the buildings and grounds. And, finally, we wanted to improve the district’s electronic capabilities, which we did through a $15 million bond issue for district improvements in 1997.”

The district spent $5.5 million of that money on a new network connecting every classroom and every office, Neumann said. “We also got a digital phone system, so teachers and parents can communicate by phone or eMail 24 hours a day.”

The city and the school system’s combined voice and data system consists of a T-1 and fiber optic-based wide area network running between each school and government building, as well as local area networks within each building. New services installed in the schools include PhoneMail, telephones, and up to six internet-ready PCs in each classroom, as well as a district-wide library management system.

Connected to the network are 33 LAN file servers and more than 1,500 new phone and computer hook-ups, district officials note.

At the same time the district was installing its network, city officials realized they needed new computer and phone systems, too, according to John Herde, the district’s Siemens representative. The technology architect from the consulting company that contracted with Siemens realized that the city could plug into the district’s new network and save millions of dollars. In return, the city pays a large part of the network maintenance costs for the district.

“The network has been up since last October for the students and … about a month for the city. All administration buildings are connected, including offices and fire stations,” Herde said. “One great feature is that if … the city needs a high-tech solution to a problem, the schools also will have access to that solution. There are certain applications that can be shared. For instance, if the city installed an automatic call distribution program, the district would be able to use it, too. It’s really a nice synergy.”

According to Herde, the Grandview network is a win-win proposition for the city and the school district. “The city got a very nice network, and through its [network] contract, the district maintains the network for the city. We estimate the network would have cost the city 40 percent more than it did, had they installed it on their own,” he said.

“From a school standpoint, it is great. They get a lot of their ongoing maintenance paid for by the city, and they also tie themselves more closely to the community.”

Neumann agreed: “This way, we can afford to have four really qualified employees run our technology department, where we used to have only two.”

District officials are excited about the school system’s new capabilities. “We have about 1,200 PCs in the district. That’s about one PC for every 3.5 students. And the new high-speed transmission path really allows for shared learning,” said Randy Fajen, the district’s director of information management services.

Officials agree that the network has had a positive influence on teaching and learning. “It becomes apparent how valuable the network is when it doesn’t work. That happens rarely, but when it does, people let me know about it right away,” Fajen said.

Neumann said the city and the school district plan to work together on other projects in the future.

“We are now working on a city and district disaster plan. We have nine school buildings and 38 buses, and the city has all this amazing mobile communications equipment in the fire and police departments, so we thought it [would be] natural to partner,” he said. “If we work together, we can take care of just about any disaster there is.”