Through all of our reporting on School District 67’s financial troubles during the 2019-20 year, we kept hearing from sources that a $1.2-million technology purchase was somehow at the root of it all.
Now that the dust has settled and a new administrative team is leading the charge at district headquarters, The Herald conducted an email interview with three top SD 67 officials to help set the record straight.
It turns out our sources weren’t the only ones rightly concerned about that $1.2-million technology purchase.
“Throughout the fall, staff and schools have questioned the board about the upgrading of computers in the schools. The newly elected trustees had limited information about the investment,” independent consultant Joan Axford wrote in her March review of the district’s finances.
“The concern centered around the spending of significant dollars at a time when the district was in deficit and had limited local capital funds.”
Axford found the district had indeed spent about $1.2 million on technology purchases – twice.
She calculated the district spent $1,273,026 on new technology during the 2018-19 year, and another $1,228,338 for 2019-20.
The second purchase was made at the start of the 2019-20 school year, when the district had a $241,000 prior-year deficit, “no operating surplus reserve funds, only $71,166 in local capital funds and reduced cash to invest for interest revenue,” wrote Axford.
WHO’S IN CHARGE?
Acting superintendent Todd Manuel confirmed the board was never asked to approve the computer purchases specifically.
“Ultimately, senior staff are responsible for approving district technology purchases,” said Manuel, whose boss, Wendy Hyer, went on medical leave in February after the board voted to hire Axford.
Board chairman James Palanio said “purchases or capital expenditures of this significance should always have board approval.”
McNICOLL TO THE RESCUE
Even after taking an axe to schools’ budgets, the district was still projecting a $1.2-million deficit for 2019-20 in January, when the Education Ministry tossed it a lifeline by purchasing the old McNicoll Park school for $11.5 million.
Desperate to erase the deficit, administrators proposed taking $850,000 from the McNicoll proceeds to pay for the computer purchases, which were to have been funded from regular operating revenue that didn’t materialize due in part to wildly inaccurate to enrolment projections.
While some trustees had openly called for that money to be devoted to a badly needed upgrade of the Summerland Secondary School gym, the board ultimately voted to repurpose the $850,000.
SO WHAT DOES $2.5M BUY?
While the technology purchases may have thrown a wrench into the district’s finances, they also produced a pile of new gear.
In 2018-19, the district bought 540 laptops for staff at a cost of about $900,000, plus six servers and associated equipment at a cost of approximately $300,000 to replace failing equipment in its Penticton and Summerland data centres.
And in 2019-20, the district bought 224 iPads, 1,191 student laptops, 19 laptop carts, 226 standard desktops, 118 high-performance desktops and 344 monitors. All of the PC computers each year also required Windows 10 licences.
The need for a technology upgrade arose from a review conducted by IBM at the board’s request in 2017.
(The Herald filed a freedom of information request for the IBM report, but was told it contains information proprietary to IBM, therefore the company would need to be given a chance to weigh in, which would add months to the release process.)
According to SD 67 technology director Matt Williams, IBM recommended a four-year computer refresh strategy, which would have seen a portion of students’ and teachers’ computers replaced during each of the first three years, followed by no spending in the fourth year.
One of the problems with that plan, explained Williams, who joined the district in October 2018 when the upgrade program was already underway, is that clerical staff’s computers were not taken into consideration, nor was hardware like servers. Plus, SD 67’s computers were old and cranky.
Teachers’ machines averaged between eight and 12 years old, while students’ devices averaged seven to 10 years old, according to Williams. They also ran on Windows 7, which Microsoft no longer supports and therefore left the district vulnerable to cyber-attacks.
“With the security risks associated to Windows 7 approaching end of service from Microsoft and the age of the devices in the fleet there were not many choices available that maintained the access to computers (to which) teachers and students were accustomed,” said Williams.
Under the plan constructed by secretary-treasurer Kevin Lorenz, who, like Hyer, has been on medical leave since February, the district would do a three-year refresh cycle of its own making with teachers first, students second and clerical staff third.
“Reflecting on the decision made prior to joining the district, it does make sense to refresh the staff devices before student devices as the operating system was changing from Windows 7 to Windows 10,” said Williams.
“This would give staff time to become comfortable with Windows 10 prior to it being rolled out for students.”
While all the computer upgrades were going on, the district also spent $617,000 renovating the IMC Building, which shares the same Jermyn Avenue address, but the project was separate, according to Manuel.
That money, he said, came from the ministry through an annual facilities grant and was used to upgrade the HVAC system at the IMC building, provide meeting spaces for the district, and office space for the IT department.
Williams plans in the near future to present the board with an “evergreen” technology plan it can follow to keep its computers current and costs stable by replacing a portion of the fleet each year.
Palanio said the board is also implementing two of Axford’s recommendations that call for monthly financial forecasts and oversight of local capital spending.
He accepts Axford’s finding there was “a lack of understanding and trust with the financials of the district” in the past, “thus looking ahead to the current budgeting process, the board will ensure there is an increased transparency and understanding of all financial decisions.”