Arizona’s ambitious plan to provide its schools with more than 250 free software titles via the internet has hit a few snags early on.

According to a report from the East Valley Tribune of Mesa, officials from several Arizona districts have cited problems with accessing and navigating the $27.9 million system so far. What’s worse, the project’s leader has resigned amid controversy over his alleged ties to one of the companies involved—and at least one state lawmaker is calling for a special investigative audit into how the contract was awarded.

The revolutionary program was supposed to be the largest single example of the application service provider (ASP) model in education to date.

Including internet upgrades and new computers, the whole program will cost the state nearly $180 million. State officials pitched it as a way to link students to an internet-based computer network that would catapult Arizona into the future of cyber education.

Seven months into the project, however, some school officials say they are finding the system difficult to navigate.

The East Valley Tribune interviewed officials from 10 school districts, seven of which are piloting the new network, who reported a number of problems.

Many districts are having trouble logging in. Navigating the system also is difficult because some sites are down, the newspaper reported.

Accessing everything the system has to offer means some districts will have to pay thousands of dollars more each month for faster internet connections. Other problems with the system reportedly include inappropriate software, hidden costs, and questionable alignment to state standards.

“I think teachers were hoping this would be their savior, but I’m not sure it’s going to be the savior of the teaching world that they thought it would be,” Tim Hunt, director of technology for the Marana Unified School District, a pilot district, told the Tribune.

Some school officials told the newspaper that the state never asked for their input.

“It was kind of sprung on us,” said Ernie Nicely, director of information systems for the Mesa Unified School District. “It just happened. There’s been no evaluation [by school districts]. And there’s been no buy-in.”

The project was launched by Philip Geiger, the former director of the Arizona School Facilities Board.

Geiger resigned March 29 after Gov. Jane Hull warned him it would no longer be acceptable to dabble in outside business interests that overlapped with his job.

Geiger’s role in steering the contract to a consortium of companies involved in the technology initiative—he served as an advisor for one of the firms—reportedly was a factor in his falling out with Hull.

Under Geiger’s initiative, about $100 million would be spent upgrading internet hookups and other hardware needs.

An additional $50 million would be spent on new computers. And all of it would be used to provide schools with access to a library of school software programs delivered over the internet, at a cost of about $27.9 million.

Traditionally, software is loaded into individual computers. But Geiger favored the use of an ASP model designed by North Carolina-based LearningStation, which involves hooking up computers to an off-site storehouse of software programs via the internet.

The Tribune reported that Geiger sparked a review by the state attorney general’s office last year after he steered the $27.9 million software contract to a consortium of companies that included LearningStation.

According to the Tribune, Geiger had been a paid member of LearningStation’s advisory board of directors for two years by the time the contract was awarded.

The attorney general’s office determined that it could not take further action, however, because Geiger had no paid affiliation with the company when the contract was awarded.

In an interview with eSchool News, Geiger—who remains on the job until May 3—said the Tribune story misrepresented his relationship with LearningStation. “I’ve never been on [the company’s] board of directors,” he said.

Geiger said he attended three LearningStation advisory board meetings in 2000. The last one was held 10 months before the state awarded its ASP contract to Cox Communication, which subcontracted delivery of the software to LearningStation. To attend these advisory board meetings, Geiger said, LearningStation covered his expenses.

Geiger said he has no financial interest in Cox Comunication or LearningStation; that’s why he negotiated such a cost-effective deal for the state. “I saved the state some $278 million through my negotiations,” he said.

Nevertheless, state Senate President Randall Gnant, R-Scottsdale, reportedly has introduced a bill that would allow the state auditor general to launch special investigations at the request of lawmakers.

Gnant has indicated that the facilities board would be the first agency targeted for investigation if the bill passes, according to the Tribune.

As for criticism of the initiative itself, John Arnold, deputy director of the Arizona School Facilities Board, told eSchool News it’s premature for school officials to judge the project, as it is still being implemented. “You shouldn’t expect the end result only halfway through the process,” he said.

Arizona has 229 school districts and more than 1,200 schools. So far, about 500 schools are connected to the system, and the state’s goal is to have its remaining schools connected by the end of August.

“There are some quirks [in the system] right now,” Arnold acknowledged, “but within a year they will all be worked out.”

State officials are working to address the problems identified to date, Arnold said. For example, Cox Communication has set up a feedback system where educators can submit complaints and suggestions.

Based on the suggestions received so far, the state has asked vendors to show which components of the software align to which standards.

The Tribune reported that school officials told the newspaper some of the software offered through the system is “inappropriate … like one program that goes into detail about the mummification process.”

But school officials who think the state has wasted money on useless software should look at the larger picture, Arnold said.

“The entire package costs about eight bucks per kid. That’s about $5,000 per school, the price of an empty server,” he told eSchool News. “Did we pay a lot extra for mummification software? I don’t think so.”

An important feature of the system that was not stressed in the Tribune story is the ability of students to access and use the software at home, said Dan Neville, technology specialist for the Kyrene Elementary School District.

In addition to the 270 free software titles, the state has arranged special discount pricing so schools can buy 11,000 other programs for less money.

“There are some good titles there,” Neville said. “I think that each person … is looking at [the system] in terms of [his or her district’s] curriculum and readiness to use technology.”

Gary Nine, assistant superintendent for the Apache Junction Unified School District, said his district has access to the system but is not running it yet, because the system doesn’t fit the district’s needs.

Apache Junction teachers use software that has built-in assessment and reporting features, he said, but the software offered through Arizon’a ASP system doesn’t have this capability yet.

“Are there problems with doing something like this? Sure there are,” Nine said. “But if I [worked for] a district that had virtually nothing, I would say there is some good stuff here.”

He continued: “To say everything is bad about the ASP, and it doesn’t work—a lot of that is just resistance to change. In the big picture, what Geiger has done for the state of Arizona … is a good thing. There’s a ton of kids [who] have computers in front of them [who] didn’t have them three years ago.”

Will Geiger’s resignation affect the program’s future?

“I certainly hope not,” Arnold said. “I don’t believe we could have gotten here without [him]. He’s been an extraordinary asset to the state.”

Links:

Arizona School Facilities Board
http://www.sfb.state.az.us

East Valley Tribune
http://www.aztrib.com

LearningStation
http://www.learningstation.com

Apache Junction Unified School District
http://www.ajusd.k12.az.us