Senate OKs extension of internet tax ban

The U.S. Senate yesterday voted overwhelmingly to extend an internet-tax ban for four years, stopping short of endorsing the permanent ban approved earlier this year by the House. The two chambers now must try to work out their differences over an issue that pits the telecommunications industry against state and local governments.

For educators and education advocates, the issue cuts two ways. If Congress winds up enacting a permanent tax ban, more parents and other school stakeholders might be able to afford high-speed internet access at home, giving more students the opportunity to use broadband technologies to extend their educations beyond the traditional school day. On the other hand, banning such taxes permanently could deprive schools of much-needed revenue, especially at a time when school leaders are struggling to balance their budgets.

These are just two of the issues facing the nation’s lawmakers as they debate legislation that would prohibit states from taxing internet service providers.

Congress first blocked state and local taxes on the services that connect consumers to the internet in 1998. The ban lapsed while lawmakers tried to rewrite it and cover new high-speed and wireless connections, generally known as broadband.

The Senate settled its differences on April 29, voting 93-3 to restore the tax ban for four years.

“This bill will ensure that consumers will never have to pay a toll when they access the information highway,” said Senate Commerce Committee John McCain, R-Ariz. “Plainly and simply, this is a pro-consumer, pro-innovation, and pro-technology bill.”

President Bush had asked Congress to permanently ban the levies. He said the Senate’s action moved the nation closer to banning the taxes to “help make high-speed internet services more affordable, increase the number of broadband users, and enhance our nation’s economic competitiveness.”

Senators made multiple changes to ease concerns of some governors-turned-senators who worried the ban could drain billions in tax dollars from state and local governments.

One change clarified that the ban did not apply to state and local taxation of voice telecommunication services, including Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP. That technology allows consumers to use the internet to make telephone calls.

Some senators had worried that without the change, telecommunications companies could evade virtually all taxes as they migrated their communication systems onto the internet’s backbone. Other senators wanted to ensure that states couldn’t find loopholes to tax not-yet-imagined wireless and broadband connections.

Sen. George Allen, R-Va., said the strong consensus about the ban’s technological scope settled April 29 could make it easier to negotiate for a ban longer than four years, but he added the House needs to accept the “reality” of some senators’ unease with a permanent ban.

States that already had started taxing internet connections before the 1998 ban preserve their right to continue collecting the payments under the Senate bill.

The Senate voted 59-37 to kill a proposal that would have extended the same rights to states that started taxing high-speed Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) connections after the 1998 tax ban. Those states imposed the taxes by arguing that DSL, which is delivered through a phone line, could be treated the same way as telephone services.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said those DSL taxes violate the spirit of the 1998 law, which aimed to lower the cost of the internet and speed its spread through all communities.

The 17 states with DSL taxes have two years to phase them out.

The bill is S. 150.

Links:

Information about S. 150
http://thomas.loc.gov

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Test and evaluate your internet connections with these free online utilities

From internet performance management and security solutions provider Visualware comes a new web portal featuring four free online tools that internet users can use to check their online connection speed, trace IP addresses, and identify their system configurations. One of the tools now available on the site, VisualRoute, is being used in schools, colleges, and universities across the nation to illustrate how the World Wide Web works. With VisualRoute, students can view the results of trace-route, ping, and who-is utilities in one easy-to-read table. VisualRoute also has the unique ability to identify the geographical location of routers, servers, and other IP devices, and plot the path on a world map. In addition, the software helps computer users detect problems within their own networks and see how packets of information move along the internet backbone. If a particular web site is slow to load or unavailable, a VisualRoute trace can show the location of a server or router causing the problem. Other tools include MySpeed, a real-time test of your download and upload connection speeds; CPUInfo, which provides quick verification of your system’s key parameters, such as processor speed, model number, and cache settings; and WhoAmI, a tool that lets you quickly verify your computer’s internet connectivity diagnostics, including operating system type and version, local and external IP addresses, internet gateway, and web access.

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$10 million to build community technology centers

The Community Technology Centers program provides an estimated $10 million to help eligible applicants create or expand community technology centers that will provide disadvantaged residents of economically distressed urban and rural communities with access to information technology and related training. Eligible applicants are community-based organizations (including faith-based organizations), state and local educational agencies, institutions of higher education, and other entities, such as foundations, libraries, museums, public and private nonprofit organizations, and for-profit businesses, or consortia thereof. Grant awards will range from $250,000 to $500,000.

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Music industry sues more students for illegal file-sharing

The recording industry sued 477 more computer users April 28, including dozens of college students at schools in 11 states, accusing them of illegally sharing music across the internet.

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), the trade group for the largest labels, praised efforts by colleges and universities to use technology and school policies to crack down on music piracy on their own. But it said the most egregious offenders on campus deserved to be sued.

“There is also a complementary need for enforcement by copyright owners against the serious offenders to remind people that this activity is illegal,” said the group’s president, Cary Sherman.

The recording industry filed its latest complaints against “John Doe” defendants, identifying them only by their numeric internet protocol addresses. It said lawyers will work through the courts to request subpoenas against the universities and some commercial internet providers to learn the defendants’ names.

Campus officials at Mansfield University in Pennsylvania warned students months ago about requests from the recording industry to crack down on copyright infringement on its computer networks.

It threatened to unplug the internet connection for each student identified by the recording industry as illegally sharing music, until the student removed all software used to distribute songs online.

“Not everyone agrees that downloading and file-sharing is copyright infringement,” wrote the school’s technology director, Connie L. Beckman. “While this may be debatable, Mansfield University is required to comply with the law.”

The latest filings brings the number of lawsuits filed by the recording industry to 2,454 since last summer. None of the cases has yet gone to trial, and 437 people so far have agreed to pay financial penalties of about $3,000 each as settlements.

The trade group said the newest lawsuits targeted students at Mansfield; Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island; Emory University in Atlanta; Georgia Institute of Technology; Gonzaga University of Spokane, Wash.; Michigan State University; Princeton University in New Jersey; Sacred Heart University of Fairfield, Conn.; Texas A&M University; Trinity College of Hartford, Conn.; Trinity University of San Antonio; the University of Kansas; University of Minnesota; and Virginia Polytechnic Institute.

Students at 21 additional universities were sued in March. A federal judge ruled that the University of Arizona had to turn over the names and contact information of four students identified in the lawsuits.

Some universities have begun taking creative steps to curtail the music file-swapping craze. In January, Penn State became the first school in the nation to offer students free digital music from the newly relaunched Napster service. The basic service, which is paid for by Penn State, provides music for listening and limited downloading. However, if students want to keep a song or burn it to a CD, they must pay 99 cents per song.

University spokesman Tysen Kendig said the service has proved extremely popular among students.

More than 75 percent of the 18,000 students who live on campus have signed up to take advantage of the free application, which experiences upwards of 100,000 downloads per day.

To accommodate the heavy traffic and to ensure the university’s traditional academic services are not interrupted, Kendig said Penn State operates a separate server to accommodate music downloads.

Next fall, Penn State officials are considering offering the music service to more than 83,000 students, faculty, and staff across all 24 statewide campuses, he said.

Kendig would not say how much the university pays for the service, citing a confidentiality agreement struck with Napster, but he did say that Penn State got the service at a steep discount compared to Napster’s usual rates.

The cost of the service is included in a $160-per-semester fee students pay for access to other information technology services, including campus computer labs and always-on internet access, he said. The university has no plans to raise this fee as a result of expanding the Napster service this fall.

“The more students who use it and buy into it, the better,” said Kendig. Penn State would rather pay money for a service its students find useful than worry about the legal ramifications of widespread illegal file-sharing on campus, he added.

Kendig said a number of other universities have approached Penn State to inquire about the service.

Links:

Recording Industry Association of America
http://www.riaa.com

Penn State University
http://www.psu.edu

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Texas school swaps textbooks for laptops

As the superintendent of a fast-growing school district in suburban Dallas, Mike Smith faces a textbook shortage every fall. But this year will be a little different at the Forney Independent School District.

Every fifth- and sixth-grader at Johnson Elementary, 100 to 150 students, will receive a $1,350 IBM ThinkPad computer loaded with digital versions of state-approved textbooks and 2,000 works of literature. If the experiment works, the program will be expanded to other grades as well.

“We think this is better than simply going out and buying more textbooks,” said Smith, who expects a shortage of 600 textbooks in August. Enrollment is projected to rise 20 percent or more at the district, and it takes three months to get new books.

Forney is the first district in the country to sign up with IBM Corp. for digital notebooks bundled with content, as the company tries to get an edge in the competitive school computer market and jump-start educators’ interest in using more laptops.

IBM hopes that adding content will help it catch up to other companies that sell laptops to schools. IBM ranks fifth in the market, far behind the leader, Round Rock, Texas-based Dell Inc.

Will Moore, an executive in IBM’s education business, says loading the machines with content makes them a good buy.

“If the students have all of Shakespeare’s works loaded on their notebook, the school doesn’t need to go out and buy all of those books,” Moore said. “And the real benefit is that it’s all interactive and searchable.”

IBM is working with software partner Vital Source Technologies Inc. of Raleigh, N.C., to sell the bundled notebooks and content to schools.

School districts in Maine, Michigan, and elsewhere are already providing laptops to students, but analysts say the cost of the technology is blocking more widespread use.

That’s even true at colleges, where dozens of private schools require students to buy their own laptops.

“Many institutions have looked at this and decided, ‘We’re not ready for this,’ whether it’s the cost, the politics of the cost, or the difficulty of curriculum differences” from school to school, said Kenneth C. Green, director of The Campus Computing Project, which tracks technology use at colleges.

But Jeanne Hayes, president of research firm Quality Education Data Inc., a unit of Scholastic Corp., said some schools see laptops as a good way to motivate students to succeed, personalize the learning experience for them, and meet the testing requirements of the new federal education law. Anticipating a trend, textbook publishers are starting to sell digital versions of their products, she said.

Computer makers are also adding features to make laptops less prone to break if they are dropped–a big concern of school administrators and parents. Moore said the IBM model that Forney will buy disconnects the recording head from the hard disk drive and locks it when the machine senses it is falling.

In Henrico County, Va., where schools give laptops to all high schoolers, Apple Computer Inc. replaced pop-out CD-ROM trays with slides on its iBook laptops when students kept breaking off the trays after forgetting to close them.

“They get heavy use, and occasionally they drop them,” said Cathy Fisher, Henrico’s director of high school education. Still, she said, breakage–as well as thefts–are rare.

The Henrico school board will decide next year whether to renew the deal with Apple, which cost the school district $18.5 million over four years. Fisher said the district can’t prove that computers raise test scores, but she said they make learning more interesting.

Back in the Dallas suburb of Forney, Superintendent Smith doesn’t know what he’ll do after the experiment with textbook-loaded laptops next year. It all depends on the price, he said.

“A child’s set of textbooks costs $350,” Smith said. “If they can get these notebooks down to $500, it gets cost-effective in a hurry.”

Links:

IBM Corp.
http://www.ibm.com

Dell Inc.
http://www.dell.doc

Vital Source Technologies Inc.
http://www.vitalbook.com

Apple Computer Inc.
http://www.apple.com

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‘Megaconference Jr.’ brings students together via Internet2

On May 6, students from nearly 100 schools worldwide will collaborate and share ideas in the first-ever Megaconference Jr., a web-based conference hosted via Interent2 technologies.

The conference, which is organized by and for K-12 students, emulates a widely successful Internet2 event called Megaconference.

For the last five years, Bob Dixon, chief research engineer at Ohio State University, has organized and hosted Megaconference, the world’s largest web-based video conference with no central location.

Nearly 1,000 people from five continents participated in Megaconference V, which took place last December in three sessions totaling 13 hours.

With various musical performances and demonstrations, Megaconference V played like a light-hearted, amateur talent show where participants from around the world–many of whom wore funny hats–took the spotlight for a few minutes to show their talents and the capabilities of Internet2.

One presentation, for example, showed video clips of Northern Quebecois children banging on electronic keyboards as their Canadian instructor taught them music from a remote location. In the course of the presentation, viewers learned that the project first started with remote violin lessons but was so successful organizers expanded it to keyboarding.

The conference proceedings were broadcast in real time with the highest quality video and stereo sound, so participants could watch the events on a full screen and not miss a single whisker, wrinkle, or expression on the presenter’s face.

Megaconference Jr., which puts the Megaconference concept into a K-12 context, is the brainchild of Kim Breuninger, instructional technology specialist at Chester County Intermediate Unit in Pennsylvania.

“We wanted our students to see what is going on in education around the world,” she said.

Megaconference Jr. intends to bring schools with Internet2 access together so they can create sustainable partnerships in which students collaborate on projects and learn from each other, Breuninger said. Already, 10,000 schools in the U.S. are connected to Internet2 through sponsoring universities and partners.

Only schools that have Internet2 access are eligible to participate. Approximately 98 schools and districts from nine countries–Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, Iran, New Zealand, Singapore, Spain, Turkey, and the U.S.–registered before the April 15 deadline. Schools from 22 U.S. states will participate, and 74 people offered to make presentations.

Student and teacher teams volunteered to organize and complete the entire Megaconference Jr., including activities such as building a web site, taking registrations, troubleshooting technical requirements, defining the program’s structure, creating promotional materials, and more.

“The idea is that this would be student-lead,” Breuninger said. Students made the majority of the decisions, while teachers acted as facilitators.

Planners have had to learn about and accommodate many challenges, such as different time zones, languages, and even small details–like will recess bells interfere, and do organizers need signed release forms before broadcasting students on the internet? (Answers vary for each participating school.)

“The kids are not only looking for a challenge; they’re looking to challenge us,” said Mike Maison, media consultant at St. Clair County Intermediate School District in Michigan.

Some of the conference highlights will include songs about lore and friendship in Turkish and English; a news broadcast put together as if it were filmed during the Lewis and Clarke expedition, complete with weather and sports; and testimony about what distance learning has meant to a girl from a rural community. Students will be able to ask the presenters questions and interact.

Megaconference Jr. planners are already thinking about next year. Maison suggested that maybe organizers will group presentations into thematic units in the future, so teachers can relate them to their curricula.

“There are lots of virtual field trips, but there seems to be an untapped market in ongoing collaborative programs that are not just a single event,” Maison said.

Records set

At the Internet2 Spring Member Meeting, held April 19-21 in Arlington, Va., an international team was presented with an award for setting a new Internet2 Land Speed Record. A team from the California Institute of Technology and CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research, the world’s largest particle physics laboratory) sent 6.25 gigabits of data per second from Los Angeles to Geneva–a rate 10,000 times faster than a typical home broadband connection.

Contestants must send data for 10 minutes across a distance of at least 100 kilometers and past two routers. “By pushing the envelope of end-to-end networking, their efforts demonstrate new possibilities for enabling research, teaching, and learning using advanced internet technology,” said Rich Carlson, chair of the judging panel.

Used primarily by research universities, Internet2 was launched seven years ago to develop advanced networking applications that could be transferred to the commercial internet.

Led by more than 200 U.S. universities working with industry and government partners, the initiative develops and deploys advanced network applications and technologies for research and higher education, in effect creating a super-fast, “next-generation” internet.

Although the main focus of Internet2 is higher education, 32 state education networks now connect to Abliene, a 10 gigabits-per-second backbone used to access virtual laboratories, digital libraries, distance-education facilities, and tele-immersion projects.

Links:

Megaconference Jr.
http://megaconferencejr.cciu.org

Megaconference V
http://www.megaconference.org

Internet2 Initiative
http://www.internet2.org

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ED launches teacher development program

Educators nationwide will have an opportunity to learn techniques from some of the nation’s best teachers, thanks to a new professional development program launched April 21 by the U.S. Department of Education (ED).

The Teacher-to-Teacher initiative consists of four main activities focused on teachers: roundtable discussions to be held this spring and summer to discuss effective teaching strategies; summer professional development workshops; eMail updates of the latest policies and research from ED; and a research summit to be held in Washington, D.C., this July.

The program is the result of feedback gathered at teacher roundtables held nationwide, in which many educators expressed the view that although the goals of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) are honorable, they are not attainable.

“There’s a fear that it can’t be done,” said Ray Simon, ED’s assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education. “Teachers feel they need additional support.”

The Teacher-to-Teacher initiative aims to help educators meet NCLB’s ambitious goals. “We determined the best partnership [ED] could form with local districts is in professional development,” Simon said. “Professional development is going to be key … It’s our obligation to help [teachers] be the very best they can be.”

The Teacher eMail Updates will address issues such as student testing, adequate yearly progress, and accountability. They’ll also contain links to the latest research and other professional development opportunities taking place around the United States.

ED hopes teams of teachers will participate together in the summer workshops, which will be held in seven cities nationwide: Anaheim, Calif.; Boston; Denver; Pittsburgh; Orlando; Portland, Ore.; and St. Louis, Mo.

“As a team, we believe they’ll have better success at going back to their schools with what they learned and making it successful,” Simon said.

ED expects workshop participants will return to their school districts and share what they learned with others through the train-the-trainer model. The workshops are offered at no charge and participants will be provided two nights lodging and a stipend for travel.

The workshops can accommodate 200 people and will be conducted by successful teachers, Simon said. ED also will make DVDs and CD-ROMs of the workshop proceedings available to educators who can’t attend, he added.

Teachers interested in attending a workshop or signing up for the Teacher eMail Updates can find more details on the initiative’s web site.

Link:

Teacher-to-Teacher initiative
http://www.teacherquality.us

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Ashcroft mum as FBI raids school district computer center

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft and his deputies won’t say what caused the April 21 Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) raid on the computer command center at the Deer Valley School District in Glendale, Ariz. The attorney general also refused to say whether other school districts have been targeted for additional FBI raids.

The timing and certain comments by Ashcroft, however, have led to speculation that the raid is part of a much larger FBI crackdown on pirated music, CDs, and movies.

The raid in Glendale came just one day before U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) officials in Washington announced the creation of a new Intellectual Property Task Force to step up copyright enforcement.

During an April 22 press conference, Ashcroft would neither confirm nor deny whether Deer Valley was a target of the investigation, but he did make a point of saying that educational institutions with high-speed internet access often foster environments conducive to the illegal swapping of copyrighted material.

FBI agents raided the Deer Valley School District’s Administration Services Center at 6 a.m. on April 21 and stayed most of the day.

The site houses the district’s information services and technology offices, essentially the “brains” of the district’s computer system, said Timothy Tait, a district spokesman.

School officials were not warned beforehand, and even the district’s top officials, including Superintendent Virginia McElyea, learned of the search warrant only when computers went down.

Classes were not disrupted, but computer use in the district office was limited, with no internet access or eMail. As of press time, the district’s web site remained down as a result of the investigation, though it was expected to be up and running by April 23.

The Associated Press reported that some of the stolen copyrighted material being sought in the raids is suspected of having been distributed from overseas sources, but Deer Valley’s Tait said the FBI did not specify what it was looking for.

“We don’t know who or what the target is,” he said. “But we don’t believe it was students.”

Tait said the FBI did not indicate when details of the investigation would be released. The agency’s only comment, he said, was that it “wouldn’t be soon.”

More than 120 searches were conducted in 24 hours in 27 states and 10 countries to thwart online networks that distribute copyrighted goods, said DOJ. The targeted organizations are known by such names as Fairlight, Kalisto, Echelon, Class, Project X, and APC, officials said.

The initiative, known as “Operation Fastlink,” has resulted in the seizure of more than 200 computers, including 30 that served as storage and distribution hubs containing thousands of copies of allegedly pirated material. One server seized in the United States contained 65,000 separate pirated titles, authorities said.

The program is intended to combat what Ashcroft referred to as the “Warez network.”

People on the Warez networks tend not to make money from their file sharing, the Hollywood Reporter, a movie-industry trade publication close to the investigation, explained, but they are a central distribution point for illegal movies, sound recordings, and software before they are released in the theaters or on the store shelves.

“Warez people try to be the first guy out there to post a movie that’s not in the theaters or the latest music titles,” one federal agent involved in the investigation told the trade paper. “It’s not a for-profit enterprise,” a federal agent was quoted as saying. “That’s how people in the Warez scene improve their reputations…. For profit is actually looked down upon.”

According to the trade paper, federal agents said the Warez community is made up of a wide range of people who often have families and good jobs and are extremely good with a computer, though there are some digital neophytes among the suspects. If convicted of violating the federal copyright law they could face up to five years in jail, the film industry publication reported.

According to Ashcroft, the Motion Picture Association of America, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), Entertainment Software Association. and Business Software Alliance all cooperated with the Justice Department in Operation Fastlink.

The raids reflect a new effort by DOJ to treat copyright enforcement as a higher priority, something that motion-picture and music-industry officials have been urging.

FBI spokesman Paul Bresson would not comment on why the federal government was searching a school district’s computer system, and he would not identify the other sites in Arizona or elsewhere that were served with warrants.

Bresson also refused to say how targets were identified, noting the search warrants were under court-ordered seal.

When contacted by an eSchool News reporter, DOJ spokesman Bryan Sierra also refused to give any details about what he called “an ongoing investigation.” Sierra said the raids were intended to disrupt and dismantle networks “engaged in the trafficking of pirated goods.”

In the past year, the recording industry has gone after people it claims have been illegally downloading music from the internet.

Earlier this month, RIAA subpoenaed the University of Arizona to provide the personal information of four students accused of illegally downloading music from university computers.

All told, the investigation targeted more than 100 people in the United States and abroad who are alleged to be involved in the theft of more than $50 million worth of music, movies, and software, U.S. authorities said.

“Intellectual property theft is a global problem that hurts economies around the world. To be effective, we must respond globally,” Ashcroft said in a statement announcing the crackdown.

“The amount of international coordination and cooperation in this effort is unprecedented and will send a clear and unmistakable message to those individuals and organizations dedicated to piracy that they will no longer be protected by geographic boundaries,” he said. “We are committed to combating this theft and will pursue these thieves regardless of their location.”

Among the countries in which FBI searches have been conducted are Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, Israel, the Netherlands, Singapore, Sweden, and Great Britain.

No arrests were immediately announced.

Links:

Deer Valley School District
http://www.dvusd.org

Federal Bureau of Investigation
http://www.fbi.gov

U.S. Department of Justice
http://www.usdoj.gov

Recording Industry Association of America
http://www.riaa.com/default.asp

Motion Picture Association of America
http://www.mpaa.org/home.htm

Entertainment Software Association
http://www.theesa.com

Business Software Alliance
http://www.bsa.org/usa

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Faulty implementation can derail the biggest IT projects

When Pleasanton, Calif.-based PeopleSoft is the primary software vendor, it might seem to even the not-so-casual observer that huge information-technology projects in large urban school districts are more likely than usual to be plagued by high-profile problems and multi-million-dollar recriminations.

That’s partly because trouble makes news and success usually brings silence, but the explanation lies deeper than that, according the software firm. The fault, says PeopleSoft, lies not in its software, but in the way school systems are often forced to manage a major software implementation.

Be that as it may, two more big districts–the District of Columbia and San Diego–are caught up in this phenomenon right now, and their situation is reminiscent of the multi-million-dollar headaches that befell the San Francisco Unified School District just four years ago.

In the nation’s capital, public school officials are weighing whether to forge ahead with a four-year, $25-million enterprise resource solution, furnished by PeopleSoft. The technology–intended to rectify long-standing flaws in the district’s troubled payroll system and smooth out other basic business functions–still is not working, school officials say, and is a long way from reaching its full potential.

In San Diego, stakeholders in the nation’s 13th largest urban school district are confronted with a similar problem. Officials and stakeholders there wonder whether PeopleSoft technology is to blame for millions of dollars in unpaid bills, neglected as a result of an on-going malfunction with the software. The school system shelled out more than $30 million in two years to integrate the technology, which includes an automated payroll service, supply-chain management tools, and other front-office solutions.

In both Washington, D.C., and San Diego, school officials have come under heavy fire for failing to get the systems up and running effectively. PeopleSoft executives contend it’s not the technology that needs changing, but rather how school administrators often approach large-scale software projects.

Part of the problem, according Bill Sullivan, PeopleSoft’s vice president for state and local business initiatives, can be attributed to the high turnover rate of key district personnel, especially at the executive level.

The D.C. public school system has burned through three superintendents since it began contracting with PeopleSoft in 1999. Similarly, in San Diego, budget cuts and staff reductions have greatly reduced the number of trained technology staff available to work on projects in city schools.

The situation got so bad in San Diego that in March the San Diego Union-Tribune reported the district was as many as eight weeks delinquent on payments to several vendors–a complication that had providers threatening to cutoff vital services.

“The real change occurs not from the implementation, but from a change in the processes,” Sullivan said. Stakeholder buy-in dictates that administrators demonstrate a long-standing commitment to the project. But when visions differ from one top-tier executive to the next, certain components run the risk of getting lost in translation.

“The most critical aspect of a functioning school system is human capital,” Sullivan pointed out. “When you have any kind of change, it’s potentially problematic. When you have multiple changes, it becomes darn near impossible.”

School leaders in San Diego don’t doubt that turnover played a role in the setbacks, but they contend certain hardships are to be expected and should have been taken into account.

“During a major implementation of the magnitude that SDCS is undertaking through [its] implementation of PeopleSoft [software], it is expected that there will be an initial decrease in productivity,” wrote school board President Ron Ottinger in an eMail message to eSchool News. “In our particular implementation, the productivity decrease was magnified due to the budget reductions that school districts throughout California are experiencing and the resulting layoffs and decrease in trained personnel in Human Resource, Finance, and [information technology]. There was no ‘software glitch.'”

School Board Member John de Beck expressed similar views in a separate eMail message to eSchool News: “My experience with software and conversion is that they always required system redundancy. The mistake in San Diego, in my opinion, is that we did not operate a redundant system, and at the same time, we cut staffing. Managing conversions is not the thing to do in times of shortages.”

To be sure, however, turnover isn’t the only source of trouble. PeopleSoft executives say the problems often stem from a disconnect between district leadership and outside technology personnel.

PeopleSoft says it tries to address this shortcoming by providing school districts with consulting services to oversee the software conversion from conception to deployment. But the competitive-bidding process at work in many school systems can militate against top-of-the-line implementation. PeopleSoft cannot force customers to take advantage of its extended services, and districts often hire outside consultants who might opt to do the work for less. Even if the outside consultants are PeopleSoft-certified, this can lead to trouble.

In the event a school system does opt for outside consultants, the company recommends that at least 20 percent of the personnel assigned to the implementation should be PeopleSoft personnel.

In the District of Columbia, administrators opted out of the PeopleSoft service entirely in favor of an outside provider–a move Sullivan says was risky.

“Part of the challenge is to ensure timely, consistent decision making throughout the life-cycle of the project,” he said. “When you don’t maintain that consistency, you’ve got problems. The D.C. public schools would be an unfortunate case study for anyone,” he said.

D.C. school officials did not respond to repeated calls from an eSchool News reporter by press time, but Clifford Cox, the school system’s acting executive director of management services told The Washington Post for a March 30 story that the district was conducting a review of the project to determine what went wrong and decide whether or not to abandon its investment. Results of that review are expected later this month.

Officials also told the Post they had hoped to salvage at least some portion of the technology. Although the district is considering looking elsewhere for services such as procurement, accounts payable, and financial reporting, Cox said, administrators likely will stick with the software to perform functions associated with human resources and payroll, primarily because the city government plans to integrate a similar solution, according to the article.

“A substantial amount of the money will be recoverable,” Cox told the Post. “That’s as far as I can quantify it.”

But San Diego and D.C. are not the only school districts to have run into problems with the technology.

In November of 2000, eSchool News reported officials in the San Francisco Unified School District experienced similar complications while attempting to leverage $5 million in PeopleSoft software to help with administrative and front-office functions.

Although the school district considered dropping the technology, executives eventually decided to work with PeopleSoft consultants to fix the glitches. The district continues to use the PeopleSoft platform.

As has been the case in other districts, the problems in San Francisco were traced not to the technology itself, but to a poorly executed implementation of the software.

Sullivan called the situation analogous to an airport, which hires a group of air traffic controllers, and then doesn’t give them the coordinates to guide the aircraft. “The planes are going to crash,” he said. “It’s as simple as that.”

In terms of scale, Sullivan says, the number of school customers experiencing problems with the software is relatively low when compared with the vast array of customers PeopleSoft serves worldwide. Indeed, statistics and a specific big-district success story tend to support the PeopleSoft view.

More than 700 universities and at least 530 state and local governments, including a number of K-12 school districts, currently use the company’s software to perform basic business functions.

In Georgia, officials for the Gwinnett County Public Schools, a 129,000-student district with more than 20,000 employees in the metro-Atlanta region, recently tapped PeopleSoft to provide more than $40 million in software and services to overhaul its business operations.

Jeff Weiler, the district’s chief financial officer, said officials couldn’t be happier with the new system. “It went exceptionally well,” he said of the integration.

Weiler said the technology already has enabled administrators to rectify problems with the district’s automated payroll system, which before PeopleSoft arrived, was not equipped for incremental changes in tax withholdings and other legal variables that tend to shift from year to year.

Like the D.C. Public Schools, Gwinnett County also opted to use an outside consultant to help guide it through the implementation process. Using services provided by IBM Corp., the school district conducted extensive training and testing of the software before going live with the new system. Officials even ran the PeopleSoft technology over the school district’s original business software for three months to ensure that if problems with the new system arose, a back-up would be in place to correct any errors.

From start to finish, Weiler said the PeopleSoft project took just under two-and-a-half years to complete. He credited its success primarily to an enduring commitment from school district leaders and said Gwinnett County was not subject to the kind of staff turnover that occurred in D.C. and San Diego.

“Change in leadership makes it really hard to sustain something like this,” he said. “The hardest part in implementing the system is not the technology; it’s the change in management. You need consistent leadership at the top.”

Similar success stories have been reported in Milwaukee and Houston.

Sullivan said he believes success is possible anywhere, so long as school districts adhere to four basic principles of responsible systems integration:

First, school districts should do their homework. Before setting out to overhaul an entire enterprise solution, administrators should search for best practices and make note of which solutions worked and why.

Second, he said, top-level administrators need to stay the course and communicate their vision to community and staff, so that all stakeholders are aware of how the changes might effect them personally.

Third, administrators also should try to put their best people on the project. With good leadership, he said, come the best results.

Finally, school districts need to maintain an open, ongoing, and trusting relationship with their technology vendor. This will ensure that problems are dealt with as they arise, he said.

Despite problems in San Diego and D.C., Sullivan said PeopleSoft has no immediate plans to change its business model or how it negotiates contracts with local school districts. In terms of consulting, he said, PeopleSoft remains convinced that giving its customers the option to seek outside help is necessary to maintain its competitive advantage. Though PeopleSoft strongly recommends its own services, the ultimate decision remains with the customer.

“The success of our company is dependent upon the success of our customers,” Sulllivan added. “Our goal is to continue to provide timely, accurate, and transparent HR data [to our customers].”

Sullivan also denied that any of the problems in San Diego or D.C. derive from Oracle Corp.’s attempted $9.4 billion hostile takeover of PeopleSoft. He refuted the possibility that the corporate battle might have caused the company to divert some of its attention away from school customers. On the contrary, he said, the corporate struggle has served to bolster PeopleSoft’s commitment to its customer base.

The attempted takeover “has served to heighten our commitment to the public sector market,” he said. “This is a critical part of the company’s business.”

Links:

PeopleSoft Inc.
http://www.peoplesoft.com/corp/en/public_index.jsp

District of Columbia Public Schools
http://www.k12.dc.us/dcps/home.html

Gwinnett County Public Schools
http://www.gwinnett.k12.ga.us/

Oracle Corp.
http://www.oracle.com/

San Diego City Schools
http://www.sdcs.k12.ca.us/

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