A comprehensive, web-based software package, created specifically for the Georgia Department of Education (DOE), reportedly is saving Georgia school officials hundreds of hours in staff time as they submit their required reports to the state.
School administrators and state DOE officials are using the new system to track teacher and school employee certification; document and approve state and federal grant awards to Georgia schools; file annual financial reports; and plan for the expansion of school facilities, among other uses.
Bill Gambill, deputy state superintendent for finance and technology, believes Georgia’s web-based administrative system is the most comprehensive in the country.
The Georgia DOE recently conducted a telephone survey of other state departments of education to see what kinds of data they were collecting via the web, Gambill explained. “Based on the results of that survey, we saw that we were doing more online than any other state,” he said.
In 1997, the department contracted with IBM to bring the administrative functions of all the state’s school systems online. IBM subcontracted the work to Atlanta-based Enterprises Computing Services Inc. (ECS), which has created 11 modules to form a complete solution to the state’s data-collection needs.
“It is a gargantuan effort. I don’t think any vendor deals with the huge file uploads we deal with on a daily basis,” said Hari Iyer, chief executive officer of ECS.
“For example, if one district has 20,000 students, and there are at least 30 elements of data we have to collect on each student in order to comply with federal regulations, you can imagine the amount of data for all 180 districts. And that’s just one small element of what this program does,” Iyer added.
The system’s 11 modules include:
- School facilities information, such as school names, addresses, grade ranges, and principals’ names.
- Individual student records.
- Full-Time Equivalency (FTE) records, which are used to determine state funding.
- Certified Professionals Information (CPI), which tracks and validates teacher (and other professional) certifications, double-checking them against information in the state’s accreditation database.
- Grants Accounting Online Reporting System, which requests, documents, approves, and tracks disbursement of federal and state grant awards for the state’s school districts.
- Financial Review Module, which collects information on districts’ balance sheet revenues (like an automated checkbook) and helps district officials compile annual financial reports for the state DOE.
- Quality Basic Education (QBE), which helps districts build “allotment sheets” showing their operating budgets. “We now have to do site allotment sheets for every school in the stateover 1,900 sites,” said Gambill. “These show the earnings for each school, for every aspect of school operations. The state can then test expenditures” against what the schools report they have received.
- School Nutrition, which tracks meal counts and food service financial data for the national school lunch program, school breakfast program, after-school snack program, and special milk program.
- Capital Outlay Planning, a scalable application designed for school facilities planners. It analyzes a district’s historical FTE data and other trends to determine its expansion needs up to five years in advance.
- Payments. The FTE, school nutrition, and grants modules all generate information that determines how much funding each district should get from the state, and this module actually sends the money to the districts. “It converts information into dollars that are then transmitted to school system banks” automatically, Iyer said.
- Teach Georgia, which posts job vacancies for all 180 school systems in the state. “Anyone can apply [for these job vacancies] online or post their resumes using this application,” Iyer said.
The first module to go online was the facilities information module, in 1997. This element was critical to the other applications, Iyer said, because all other applicationssuch as student records, grants accounting, and school nutritionrelate directly to the facilities module.
In 1998, ECS completed the CPI, FTE, student records, grants, and school nutrition modules. The following year, the company added the QBE and financial review modules, and Teach Georgia came online this past year. ECS added parts of the payments module as each of the applications driving it was completed.
The grant management portion of the program has been so well received in Georgia that ECS has decided to modify the product to the needs of other states, said Shekhar Iyer, ECS president and brother of Hari Iyer.
“Due to the overwhelming success of the electronic grants application … we decided to provide similar solutions to other states and school districts nationwide,” he said.
Georgia’s automated record-keeping system simplifies the reporting process, reduces paper, and allows data to be reported in a more timely manner, state DOE officials say.
“So far, the response has been great. End-of-year reports can be done much quicker, and the turn-around on district data is much faster,” said Gambill.
Faye Barnes, administrative assistant for technology and information services at Colquitt County Public Schools (K-12, enr. 8,400), said the system is “one of the best things the [state] Department of Education has done to make it easier for school systems to upload data.
“We also like it because we can get instant feedback, instead of waiting a week or two to find out if the data we submitted [were] free of errors,” she added.
Alana Bolin, the district’s comptroller, said the grants requisition module “is the best piece of software the state has ever come out with. It lists all the grants you’ve been awarded and you just go in and make monthly draw-downs. It has really streamlined the process and enabled us to consolidate. Now, we only have one person doing the [grants requisitioning], where before we had several.”
The statewide reporting system is not cheap, but according to Gambill, “There has been a great savings in manpower at local school districts. The web-based system we’ve developed with ECS also helps us to get more accurate data, which allows state funds flowing to the district to be more accurate.”
Gambill estimates the department has spent nearly $35 million since 1998 to develop the system, but part of that figure includes the cost of trying to implement a system from SAP, which the department subsequently abandoned. The project has required less money each year, as the development of new modules has been completed.
As far as the infrastructure necessary for districts to participate in the web-based state reporting system, Gambill said every district has installed T1 lines, paid for with state funds and eRate discounts.
“Our next initiative is to upgrade to broadband and get every school connected,” said Gambill.
At schools that still lack internet connections, officials “just [save the reports] on a disk and hand it over to their district. We call that ‘tennis-shoe transferal,'” said Gambill.
State officials hope the system will be a good source of information for the community. According to Gambill, people can view reported information about the schools in their area simply by looking on the department’s web site. “Anyone can access our summary data, once we post [them] on the web,” he said.
But Gambill explained that all personal information on the site is shielded from tampering through password-protected transmissions of data, encryption, and firewalls.
“Only authorized district personnel can make changes to district information. We maintain the database. If someone leaves the district, he or she must notify usand only then do we issue the appropriate person a new password,” he said.
ECS and state DOE officials agree that educators are the ones who stand to gain the most from the program.
“What used to take months now takes days, and what used to take days now takes minutes,” Hari Iyer said.
Georgia Department of Education
Enterprises Computing Services Inc.
Colquitt County School District