As school computer networks become larger and more complex, some pioneering districts are beginning to lease their entire information technology systems from a single provider.

Where schools once had to manage their own hardware, software, installation, and upkeep, a growing number now pay a monthly fee—much like a utility bill—for another organization to provide equipment and perform all these services.

Outsourcing their technology needs to a single vendor frees cash-strapped school districts from having to hire a technical support staff to keep computers and networks running smoothly. It also enables district personnel to focus on their core functions of teaching and learning. But critics of this type of arrangement say they are wary of giving up control over mission-critical systems and putting it into the hands of a single service provider.

End-to-end solutions

Instead of making massive technology purchases and paying district employees to install and maintain technology services, districts such as Richardson Independent School District (RISD) in Texas are paying experts to do all the work.

In July, Compaq Computer Corp. announced that it had signed a five-year purchase agreement with a value estimated between $30 million and $35 million to provide a complete, end-to-end computing solution to Richardson schools.

RISD has more than 35,000 enrolled students on 60 campuses encompassing most of the city of Richardson, as well as parts of Dallas and Garland.

“Customers want to reduce the risks and costs associated with [information technology], while at the same time being able to benefit from the advantages it offers,” said Jim Weynand, Compaq’s vice president of government and education markets.

“Compaq is able to leverage its strengths in innovative, industry-leading technology coupled with its … management and support capabilities to deliver customers, like RISD, a total life-cycle solution. By reducing the complexity associated with managing an IT environment, RISD is able to focus on its core competency—delivering excellence in education,” he said.

Compaq has been a hardware provider to RISD for the last four years, providing the district with ProLiant industry-standard servers and high-performance Alpha servers.

According to Daniel New, executive director of technology program management for the district, a number of companies already have a contract in place under Texas purchasing guidelines, and Compaq is on the list of approved providers.

“Under the terms of the state contract, we could go directly into negotiations with Compaq at a price we could both agree on, without having to do a competitive bid, a [request for proposals], and all that,” he said.

Compaq’s Computing on Demand program is a collection of new solutions that gives customers a broad range of computing resources when they need them, where they need them, and at a predictable price and performance level. In fact, the only item RISD will go outside of the Compaq agreement to find is its internet service, which will continue to be provided by Nortel.

“Compaq is providing a complete life-cycle solution to reduce the complexity of managing 16,000 desktop and laptop systems throughout our schools and administrative offices,” said New.

According to the new five-year contract, Compaq Global Services will conduct a technology refresh, directly installing and supporting 14,000 Compaq Deskpro workstations, 2,000 Compaq Armada laptops, and 350 Compaq ProLiant servers.

Through the services component of the contract, Compaq Global Services will provide image loading, configuration, installation, break-fix and disposal services, onsite project and software management, disaster recovery, data warehousing, remedial maintenance, and many other services as district officials make requests.

“I’d say Compaq has picked up 90 percent of the responsibility for providing computers and computer services to the district under this agreement,” said New. ” We originally had an installation and maintenance department [composed] of 25 personnel. Under this agreement, the bulk of these personnel were transferred to Compaq.”

That means former district employees are now receiving paychecks from Compaq, relieving the district from its responsibility of managing and paying these people.

New estimates that, under this agreement, the district will save $2.6 million on payroll and operating budgets over the next five years.

Industry-wide trend

The concept of leasing whole computer networks from one provider is not new to business, but until recently it has rarely been seen in schools. Now, however, it seems most hardware providers have some sort of all-inclusive leasing solution that takes the pressure off of school officials and helps streamline district IT management.

At the National Educational Computing Conference in Chicago in June, Gateway Computer Inc. announced a similar program for leasing services to school districts, scheduled for an early October launch. TechSource is Gateway’s complete solution, but unlike Compaq’s Computing on Demand—which serves business as well as education—TechSource is aimed directly at schools.

Through its TechSource program, Gateway remotely monitors hardware performance and gives early warning of performance problems.

“We also give schools a help desk that’s exclusive to their school,” said Bill Goforth, director of education marketing for Gateway. “They decide what software solutions they want supported—we have a list of over 150 software providers—and we provide that [specialized] support,” he said.

The amount and type of hardware installed is up to schools themselves, explained Goforth.

“We don’t care if the hardware is Gateway, Compaq, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, whomever,” he said. “If you already have the technology in place, we don’t care what it is.”

The company also recommends internet service providers from a list of more than 200 partners nationwide.

According to Dell spokesman Dean Kline, his company also offers a variety of flexible financing options for schools that want to outsource their technology services. Dell’s large contract with the Columbus (Ohio) Public Schools is a good example of an all-inclusive lease deal, he said.

“They have leased everything—from the hardware to software to installation services to trash removal and a myriad of other services,” he said. “All of that is contained under their lease.”

Though Dell has no formal outsourcing program for K-12 education, Kline said the computer maker can scale its offerings based on a customer’s needs.

Not all educators agree that handing a district’s technology functions over to an outside provider is a good idea.

Michael Parrish, distance learning coordinator for Guilford (N.C.) Public Schools, speaks from experience.

“We have had outside consultants, contract labor, and outsourced some functions. In each case we eventually returned to running our own system,” he said. Generally, outside organizations try to make schools fit a business-oriented model, Parrish found.

“They assume that school systems must have the latest and greatest. Our helpdesk software, for example, could handle 50 times more [work] than we needed, [and it] was expensive and difficult to maintain,” he said. “It is my experience that we are far better off maintaining control because we know what we need. In the end ‘it takes one to know one.'”

School officials involved in large-scale outsourcing programs, however, see the benefit of these agreements in a growing and changing technology environment in which schools constantly struggle with insufficient funds and staffing levels.

“This is cradle to grave—there is installation, maintenance, and ongoing support. [Suppliers are] basically broadening their spectrum of services,” said New. “I think we could see more districts turning to this type of solution. If done properly, it is certainly beneficial from a cost standpoint.”

Links:

Richardson Independent School District
http://www.richardson.k12.tx.us

Compaq Computer Corp.
http://www.compaq.com

Dell Computer Corp.
http://www.dell.com

Gateway Computer Inc.
http://www.gateway.com