, Salem, MA

February 20, 2013

Our view: School tech woes grow quickly

The Salem News

---- — The Marblehead School District’s report on the state of its computer infrastructure should be required reading for school officials across the North Shore as an example of how quickly technology can become outdated and how expensive it can be to catch up.

The report, put together by a blue-ribbon panel of town and school officials and IT experts and presented to the School Committee last month, outlines the problem in stark terms:

“The Marblehead Public School technology systems are in very poor shape. We lack appropriate funding and staffing to address a myriad of needs,” the report’s executive summary reads. “Our computer inventory and servers are outdated, we lack proper backup systems, the network infrastructure is mostly past useful life span, and we lack proper wireless networking systems.”

The report continues, “Significant increases in funding and staffing are needed to address the needs of our current technology systems, as well as to expand our systems to address the needs of the school district. A level-funded budget will address only a small fraction of the needs. Modest increases would help address the most critical areas but leave important areas of need unaddressed. Additional operations funding is needed, as well as fundraising and grant opportunities.”

Meeting these needs would require between $1.2 million and $1.4 million a year for the next five years, according to Ken Lord, the district’s technology supervisor. That’s about $700,000 to $850,000 a year over the schools’ existing technology budget.

There’s no question that an upgrade is needed. More than 60 percent of the district’s desktop and laptop computers, for example, are more than 8 years old. “Student access to technology is poor and varies from building to building,” according to the report. “Schools that do have access for students to use computers do not have sufficient numbers or the equipment is so outdated that the students and faculty often give up on using them. Students and staff that do use the technology are continually frustrated by the slow speed and lack of reliability.”

That’s unacceptable in 2013, when our students are expected to graduate from high school with the skills needed to compete in a wired world.

At least Marblehead school officials, the School Committee and the community at large are meeting the problem head-on. In this economic climate, it would be easy to essentially give up and say the problems are too expensive to be fixed. It would be just as easy to pass the problem on to voters in the form of a Proposition 21/2 override.

Lord and Superintendent Gregory Maass are working to address what problems they can without adding to the district budget. One idea is to purchase refurbished computers instead of new ones to cut down on costs while still replacing outdated machines. Next year’s proposed budget is being reworked to deal with some of the problems. One $60,000 proposal, for example, would add a tech-support employee at the high school. Tech support has been a chronic problem — a ratio of one technician per 100 computers is typical in the private sector, according to the report. Marblehead has been operating at one technician per 650 computers. And community groups are pitching in, as well.

The shocking thing about the problem is how quickly it snowballed. It was just a little more than 10 years ago that Marblehead had a new high school with state-of-the-art computer equipment and technology.

Just like spending on, say, maintenance for the school boiler is among the first things cut when budgets are tight, it’s easier to put off continued investment in technological infrastructure than face the prospect of cutting teachers or increasing class sizes. But continued investment must be made.

It’s a lesson that districts with new, state-of-the-art schools — like Beverly and Danvers — should pay attention to now. Trying to solve the problem 10 years down the road will likely be much more difficult and costly.