School district digital debacle : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Saturday, February 12, 2000

Digital debacle drains state grant to school district

More than $800,000 in computer upgrades in Alta Loma district still don't work properly, teachers say. By RENE LUNA

RANCHO CUCAMONGA -- Hundreds of thousands of dollars in good intentions in the Alta Loma High School District has bought a lot of headaches, disappointment and what a government watchdog said are violations of the state open-meetings law.

The state Department of Education awarded Alta Loma High School almost $855,900 in August 1998 to modernize its computer software and hardware equipment to bridge the "Digital Divide," the difference in quality of computer resources at schools in wealthy and poor districts.

The grant promised a schoolwide network with a computer in every classroom and three business labs; each computer would have access to a printer, the Internet and the latest in software applications. To date, all the state grant money has been spent, yet the computers don't work reliably, are prone to crashes, and adversely affect teachers' ability to deliver lessons, teachers said this week. "We've had so many problems that we've had to fix them ourselves," said business and computer teacher Christy Gonzales. But Gonzales said the system works a lot better now than it did in September. When students and teachers fired up the the schoolwide network, it was a shambles.

"I remember the first couple months of school," Gonzales said. "All the printers died, and that was the day of a test. With 35 computers in the classroom, we have to do what we can to make them work."

In addition to printers that failed, computers crashed and passwords that should have given access to software didn't, said one teacher who asked not to be identified.

Teachers working in the three 36-computer business labs say the system today, as bad as it is, still is an improvement over the antiquated machines that they replaced, some of which were Apple IIe models.

"Even with the problems," said computer applications teacher Todd Lipschultz, "it's 2,000% better than a year ago." But in setting up the approximately 250-computer network, a series of mistakes happened, resulting in accusations and heated confrontations between the two people who were responsible for making the system work: Robert Rodriguez, a computer consultant the district hired, and the Chaffey district's director on information services, Mike Harrison.

At Alta Loma, an eight-person committee recommended that the computer network be run by Microsoft Windows NT workstations. The software that would run the computers that served the workstations was not specified.

Harrison opposed NT servers, which logically should be combined with NT workstations. "We are a Novell district," he said, although he signed off paperwork approving the purchase of an NT server and has Novell and NT running at the district offices.

Rodriguez was in favor of NT servers. As a compromise at Alta Loma, Novell and NT servers would be combined and run together. But once the district-built Novell server was delivered, it didn't work, Rodriguez said. When the server was removed after two months, it cleared up half the problems that had troubled the network, said Mary Kay Davidson, the Digital High School coordinator. Then Harrison made changes to the standard operating system software on the workstations. Rodriguez said he failed to notify him of the changes, a charge that Harrison denies.

When the workstations failed to work reliably, Harrison blamed Rodriguez for faulty installation, and Rodriguez accused Harrison of altering software in which he had no expertise.

In a conversation with Supt. Barry Cadwallader, Rodriguez accused Harrison of sabotaging the project. Rodriguez, whose daughter attends Alta Loma, later attended a board meeting where he was planning to air his grievances. Cadwallader persuaded him not to speak publicly, offering instead a private meeting with the board. Rodriguez's complaint was a personal grievance with Harrison, Cadwallader said, and so could be construed as a personnel problem.

"We're not into character assassination," Cadwallader said, denying that the intent was to hide problems at the site from the public. In offering a private meeting with the board that had not been put on an agenda, Cadwallader broke the law, according to Terry Francke, a lawyer with the California First Amendment Coalition. As a subject of Rodriguez's personal complaints, Harrison should have been notified 24 hours in advance in writing so he could attend that closed session at which he was the subject, Francke said.

If Harrison was not the topic, and Rodriguez was complaining about the digital project as a contractor, then the matter didn't belong in closed session at all, Francke said, again a violation of the Brown Act. In October, the district hired a second consultant, Tek Systems, at a cost between $9,000 and 10,000 to assess the state of the troubled network and outline a plan to fix it. Based on that report, the district solicited bids, receiving one formal bid in the amount of $146,000, said fiscal services director Lynn Murphy. It was judged too expensive.

A third consultant was hired for a sum not to exceed $25,000 to reconfigure the architecture of the servers to match the recommendations by the second consultant.

Since then, the district has taken over responsibility of fixing each workstation. Although it's the sixth month of school, many computers are still limping along. Commenting on the state of the system, Lipschultz said: "It's a lot better now, but it's still a big challenge to run."

-- Martin Thompson (, February 14, 2000

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