A computer network for all North Carolina public school teachers targeted for completion this year will take two more years and probably end up costing more than $150 million, state officials say.

Only six of the state’s 117 school districts are online as part of a trial of the system, which is called NC WISE. Many of the teachers using it say it is difficult to access the network, much less complete basic tasks such as entering daily attendance information. Some call it “NC STUPID.” “If I bought a car that did not work for four years, I would call it a lemon and get another,” said Tito Craige, chairman of the social studies department at East Chapel Hill High School. “Actually, I wouldn’t wait for nearly this long.”

State education officials say the rising costs and delays are related to the scope of building a system with a dozen or more applications that can be used by 80,000 teachers.

“This project has turned out to be harder, more complex, and more expensive than anyone thought,” said Bob Bellamy, associate superintendent for accountability and technology for the Department of Public Instruction (DPI).

NC WISE is intended to replace a network known as SIMS, or Student Information Management System, that the schools have used since the 1980s.

SIMS took attendance and traced students and their courses, Bellamy said. “There was no capacity for comprehensive data analysis,” he said.

NC WISE is expected to allow teachers to easily review a student’s record, from physical or learning difficulties to test scores and discipline issues, Bellamy said.

NC WISE also will allow more accurate reporting of graduation statistics and improve the state’s capacity to meet the reporting requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind law, he said.

The project was launched in 1999 with a $54 million contract between the state and the consulting division of PricewaterhouseCoopers. In 2002, IBM bought the consulting arm of the accounting giant and took over the job.

DPI renegotiated a $78 million deal with IBM late last year to complete the project by 2009. Added to the $35 million already spent, that makes the cost more than $110 million.

Anticipated costs outside the contract are likely to push the overall bill to $150 million or more, Bellamy said.

State schools Superintendent Mike Ward blamed PricewaterhouseCoopers for some of the added costs and delays. But Bellamy acknowledged that the DPI expanded the scope of the project, largely in response to requests from school districts, and asked for additional applications as work has progressed.

The local school districts also face startup costs connected with the program.

One serious problem encountered by the six districts taking part in the trial has been a lack of wiring capacity to handle all the traffic. Heavy demand on that wiring–from internet use in classrooms to eMail and administrative uses–has prevented teachers from gaining access. The cost of providing enough wiring to handle the load will be borne mostly by the districts, not the state.

Some teachers complain NC WISE is needlessly complex and complicated.

“It’s not user-friendly,” said Bob Brogden, a social studies teacher at East Chapel Hill High. “I use it only to the degree that I have to. I use it to take attendance and enter final-quarter grades.”

Dee Skinner, a veteran social studies teacher at Wake Forest-Rolesville High School, spent most of last Monday recalculating fall semester grades for her 85 students because flaws had been discovered in NC WISE’s electronic grade-book application.

“It’s a mess,” she said.

State administrators said they now feel confident that 40 to 50 more school districts can be connected to the system for the 2004-05 academic year. The rest would be added the next year. Bellamy said enhanced software to fix many of the problems teachers have found will be added before the end of the month.

“Will it be perfect? Probably not,” he said. “Will it be dramatically better? Absolutely.”

Links:

North Carolina Department of Public Instruction
http://www.dpi.state.nc.us

NC WISE
http://www.ncwise.org