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How School Districts Can Avoid Buying Expensive Technology That Doesn't Work

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Few things in life are more frustrating than buying something expensive only to find that it doesn't work the way you thought it would.

That frustration is likely magnified when the item is question is a $1 million security system for a school district of more than 140,000 students.

That's the challenge Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina has faced in recent months. According to a report in the Charlotte Observer, district leaders last year installed a technology tool designed to allow employees in more than two dozen schools to sound an alarm via a button on their ID badges. The move to install the tool came amid nationwide anxiety over a rash of high-profile school shootings, including the 2018 attack in Parkland, Fla., that left 17 high school students and staff members dead.

Prompted by reporting from the Observer, school officials said this month that the system has been spottily effective at best since installation, and that the district has been working with the Georgia-based software company Centegix to eliminate the bugs. 

School districts often look to technology as a means of solving their most pressing issues, but the process of selecting and overseeing the implementation of an expensive product can be rife with complications, including unexpected malfunctions and subpar usage

Education Week asked Amy McLaughlin, information services director at Oregon State University and the project director for cybersecurity at the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), for some tips and techniques districts can use when making important technology decisions. Here's what she recommends:

Cost can't be the only factor.

The competitive bid process, often known as RFP (request for proposals), should be deliberate and thorough, McLaughlin said. "Penny wise and pound foolish" is a mantra worth keeping in mind, she said. 

"I've seen organizations have to settle for a system that isn't the best option because they put too much emphasis on the lowest bid, and not enough emphasis on meeting the needs and requirements of the organization in the RFP scoring process," she said.

Be clear about what you want from the technology providers.

A checklist of questions that an RFP should answer, McLaughlin said:

  • What kind of network will it need to run on? 
  • What systems (camera, phone, etc.) will it need to interface with? 
  • What kind of staffing will the district need to support the system? 
  • What kind of training will the district need to support the system? 
  • Will it be centrally managed?

Refine contracts before signing them.

Ideally, a general counsel would review the contract along with administrators before it's signed, McLaughlin said. 

Features of a strong contract, according to McLaughlin, include:

  • Clear definition of the services being rendered
  • Service-level agreements
  • Responsibilities of both parties
  • Designated project or implementation manager to work with
  • Options for the district to take if the promised services are not delivered
  • Implementation plan

Don't pay the vendor until it's clear the product works. 

McLaughlin said districts should require in contracts with technology providers that companies will only be paid once the product is "implemented, tested, and working consistently in alignment with the contracted agreement."

Image: Getty


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