Kansas City (Missouri) School District's Vision for Education in the 21st Century

The Kansas City, Missouri, School District (KCMSD) has completed installation of a $8.5 million communications system that integrates voice, high-speed data and video among more than 70 schools and 90 sites. As a result, our districtís 37,000 students and 5,000+ employees now have access to the Internet and World Wide Web, can share instructional and resource materials, can take advantage of distance learning and videoconferencing, and enjoy multimedia presentations. The administration, teachers, students and parents now easily communicate using e-mail and voice mail, which has eliminated a lot of telephone tag and writing of notes.

What did it all cost? You might be surprised to learn that since installing our private network, KCMSD is realizing a saving of about $500,000 a year compared to our previous communication system.

Vision

Our former administration took the initiative in using technology in the service of education -- a view supported by widespread consensus with many others in the district. We felt a genuine need to change the way we were delivering instruction throughout the district, and knew that our communication system was inadequate to handle it. Centrex service from our local carrier provided four-digit dialing among the schools and administration offices and voice-only service, but little else. The sum total of our system was approximately 3,200 lines for phones, faxes and security systems, but our annual telephone bill -- for only local service -- had risen to more than a million dollars. Clearly it was time for a new vision and a plan to implement it.

Phase I: Assessing Communication and Technology Needs

We formed a 12-member Planning Commission that included two members of Information Systems (IS), school principals, computer resource teachers, a director of planning, and an instruction specialist from math and technology. Their mission was to prepare a Technology Plan that fully described the districtís needs in the broad context of communication, curriculum, instruction, staff development and so on. The plan was also to include recommendations for the technology that would be needed to meet these needs, now and into the future.

Committee members were relieved of their usual responsibilities so they could devote all their time to planning. Without that investment, we never would have achieved what we have. IBM was brought in to act as a facilitator and to keep the project on track. For three months, the committee conducted interviews and surveyed every district employee about their needs and how technology could help in their specific areas and in delivering education to our students. The collected data was analyzed and used to develop the 200-page Technology Plan that provided a detailed needs assessment and proposed the necessary technology.

School administrators had long recognized the need for improved voice communications, and the data confirmed that nearly everyone shared this view. We found that improving voice communications was almost as important as the more advanced capabilities presented in the Technology Plan. The plan was presented to our School Board in 1993, which formally approved and adopted it.

Funding the Project

We approached funding from a broad perspective, considering not only the expense required to implement the Technology Plan, but to carry out other major facilities work, which included repairs, maintenance and upgrades to our physical plant. Not long after the planís approval by the school board, the KCMSD issued lease-hold revenue bonds. From that issuance, $13.5 million was appropriated for the Technology Plan ($8.5 million of this would be later be allocated for our communications system). This was the largest non-construction expenditure ever approved by the board, and it passed unanimously.

During 1996, the KCMSD was one of only 23 school districts in the country to receive a Technology Challenge Grant from the U.S. Department of Education. We received our first check for $732,000, and over the next five years we will receive a total of $3.5 million toward completing the project. The district has always applied for grants as a matter of course. But we have discovered that since we began to spend our own money on this project, the likelihood of being awarded a grant increases. Grant committees appear to favor school districts that have already demonstrated a commitment and have district-wide involvement.

Phase II: The Technology Implementation Plan

Our next step was to develop a Technology Implementation Plan. We estimated it would require about $40 million to complete the entire plan. Knowing from the start that we only had a third of these funds, it was evident that we needed to establish priorities. We knew that simply buying a lot of stand-alone computers was an ineffective approach; they needed to be interconnected throughout the district and with the rest of the world via the Internet and World Wide Web. We concluded that if we wanted a fully integrated network, the first priority was to invest in the backbone infrastructure.

In the spring of 1994, Information Systems spearheaded the development of the Technology Implementation Plan. We needed to know how we were going to spend this money; how we were going to ensure that the technology we invested in would be used to its full capability; and, once installed, how we were going to integrate that capability into our learning process.

A local communications consultant was brought in to assist us in putting together a comprehensive Request for Proposal (RFP) and then to evaluate the bid responses. Our RFP was highly detailed and included requirements for voice, data, video and on-going maintenance.

One requirement that I insisted upon including in the RFP was that any bidders who submitted multi-vendor solutions had to identify a lead vendor who was completely accountable for the bid. With a network this size, there were going to be problems that needed solving. When that happened, I wanted to make only one phone call.

We then sent our RFP to well over 20 nationally recognized telecom providers, including AT&T, IBM, Siemens, Sprint and several local companies. We held a pre-bid conference, and anyone planning to respond was obligated to attend. At the conference, we devoted several hours to going over the RFP very carefully, step by step. Ultimately, six individual bids were submitted, but the proposals involved teams of multiple vendors.

Awarding the Contract

Our IS and Purchasing Departments and our consultant shared the responsibility for selecting the network provider. We also brought in another consulting firm from out of state to add an outsiderís objective assessment.

In January 1995, we awarded the contract for the communications system to Siemens Business Communications (SBC). Thus, it was about a two-year process from the development of the Technology Plan to the time we selected a vendor.

Configuration/Prioritize/Phase-in

Siemens was our vendor for the network equipment, which included Siemens PBXs with PhoneMail and CorNet ISDN links, automatic call distribution (ACD), Business View for telemanagement, ComManager PC-telephony software, and Infortext call-accounting software. In addition, Siemens provided bandwidth managers from Newbridge Networks and LAN hubs and access node routers from Bay Networks. Under Siemensí SmartServ maintenance plan, we began installing the network in August 1995, starting with the central administration building and three schools. We had completed 52 sites by August 1996 and another 12 by early October.

On-going Maintenance/Vendor Relationship Critical

For continuity and accountability, I wanted the same team of people involved from the very beginning of the networkís implementation until its completion, so we negotiated the network contract and maintenance service agreement to span a five-year period. We provide an on-site office for several SBC people who are here on a daily basis. The team answering to me in regards to our network includes two service engineers, project managers for both voice and data, and an installation specialist.

Network Benefits

The greatest benefit we are seeing from the implementation of the wide-area network is the instructional value. We can now put information right at studentsí fingertips, material they access for learning and special projects. We are already seeing the beneficial effects of improved levels of communication among teachers, parents, students and the administration. From the standpoint of IS, the standardization of technology across the district has made our mission of managing facilities and providing capabilities far easier.

We improved our communication capabilities and added voice, data and video. As a result of higher data rates, what was a three-second transaction is now immediate. Phones and phone lines are being added to almost every classroom in the district. That alone would have cost $1.3 million under our old system.

And, of course, one of the most important benefits has been the cost saving. It may be difficult to see how one can save a school district money by spending $8.5 million on a network, but a financial analysis reveals that is exactly what is happening at KCMSD.

Our previous annual expenditure for local phone service was $1.1 million. With the new network, our current cost for local service has dropped to $763,000 annually -- a saving of some $350,000 a year. At the end of the four years, that cost will decrease further, to about $650,000 -- saving the district about $450,000 a year. We are actually paying for this network with the money we save by improving communications and increasing capabilities. Thus, we have all the benefits of a state-of-the-art telecommunications system that will, in the long term, pay for itself from the savings we will realize.

The scenario would likely be different for a smaller school district, but districts that approach the size of ours would do well to explore their options and do a detailed cost analysis.

Summary

This has been a win-win situation for KCMSD as well as the students and community. We had the support of the entire district; we gave the employees and students what they were requesting; and we are saving the district and taxpayers money. Additionally, we have a system that will grow with us well into the 21st century and pay for itself. And, from a telecommunications point-of-view, we have what I believe is one of the best backbone network systems in this country -- in a school district -- or elsewhere.

Rick McAfee, Chief Information Officer for the Kansas City (Missouri) School District, and a 30-year employee of the district, was instrumental in the planning of the new communications system for KCMSD, choice of vendor, as well as the systemís implementation and operation.

Products or companies mentioned:
Bay Networks, Santa Clara, CA, (408) 988-2400, www.baynetworks.com
Newbridge Networks, Herndon, VA (703) 834-3600, www.newbridge.com
Siemens Business Communication Systems, Santa Clara, CA, (800) 765-6123, www.siemenscom.com

This article originally appeared in the 11/01/1997 issue of THE Journal.

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