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School board divisions erupt at meeting

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Contract for tech upgrade fails to win approval amid demand for advisory panel that reports to board

By Daniel Laverty

Recent divisions in the Jeffco school district related to data-storage technology led to charges of “blackmail” and a brief physical confrontation at last week’s school board meeting.

As the board discussed at length a $1.2 million contract to upgrade existing technology and data-storage capabilities — unrelated to the controversial inBloom student-information repository that the district plans to test —board member Paula Noonan said she would vote against the contract unless an advisory panel was formed to report directly to the board on technological issues.

A separate panel appointed by Superintendent Cindy Stevenson is studying the inBloom technology that the district plans to test in 2014. That group reports directly to Stevenson. 

The contract for the existing tech upgrade failed to win approval at the Oct. 3 meeting on a 2-2 vote — one seat on the five-member board remains open, as the members also stalemated on appointing a replacement for Robin Johnson, who resigned in August.

“This upgrade was critical,” said Lorie Gillis, chief financial officer for Jeffco Schools.

The $1.2 million would have paid for upgraded digital storage hardware and software through the technology company EMC. Gillis made clear that the contract was unrelated to inBloom but said current EMC hardware stores critical information and technology — including e-mail accounts, human resource information, security camera feeds, card access to buildings and more. She said current systems are at 80 to 90 percent of capacity.

The district can now anticipate annual maintenance costs of approximately $250,000 to keep the existing hardware, which was installed in 2009, operating, Gillis said.

“Even paying the maintenance fees is not an adequate or sustainable solution,” Gillis said. “It’s not a long-term strategy. We’re going to have to schedule times to power down the entire system for maintenance.”

 

How it failed

The contract failed to pass after the board split its vote 2-2, but not before the issue was discussed at length.

School board members Noonan and Laura Boggs were skeptical of the contract and asked what the $1.2 million was for and why the district needed it. Noonan asked why a committee on data-storage technology that reports directly to the board doesn’t exist.

Board President Lesley Dahlkemper asked for voting to begin, but Boggs said she wanted to continue the discussion.

On the ensuing vote, Boggs voted no, and Dahlkemper and board member Jill Fellman voted yes. Noonan said she was not comfortable voting because Boggs had not been allowed to fully express her concerns.

“I believe data is going to be such a big thing going forward … that it’s incumbent for us to have a committee that reports directly to the board that helps us with expertise around data issues,” Boggs said. “I would be much more comfortable voting yes … if we knew we had this committee going forward.”

“While I will vote for this, I am asking that we, as a board, put together a group of experts that we have assigned to this task to help us get a (clearer picture on the district’s plan for data use and collection),” Noonan said.

Both Dahlkemper and Fellman said they would discuss forming such a group during the board’s next study session on Oct. 24.

“I have a question for (Allen Taggart, Jeffco Schools attorney),” Noonan said. “Mr. Taggart, if the vote is 2-2, what does that mean?”

“It means the contract is not approved,” Taggart said.

“OK, based on that, I’m going to vote no, unless we agree … to establish a committee that is reporting to the board on data management.”

“Let’s be really clear about what we’re doing,” Dahlkemper said. “To hold this data storage hostage … I think is fundamentally wrong and is irresponsible.”

“All I want is a commitment from (Dahlkemper) and from (Fellman) to get this committee going,” Noonan said.

“But it is premature … to make a decision about a committee that we haven’t even had a discussion about what the role of that committee is,” Dahlkemper said.

“I really think that we have to separate these two things,” Fellman said. “We need the storage capacity; we need a committee. Those are two different issues. We cannot tie them together, and blackmailing this board and blackmailing the staff is not OK with me.”

Noonan said she would be willing to discuss the role of a data committee at a later time but still wanted the members’ agreement that a committee reporting to the board would be formed.

Both Fellman and Dahlkemper said they couldn’t agree. Dahlkemper referred to the board’s study session on Oct. 24 and said the district is planning a presentation to the board on its plans for data and wanted to wait for that.

Noonan was still left to vote, and she paused for a moment before saying, “No.”

“Then the contract fails,” Dahlkemper said.

Many Jeffco Schools’ employees stood up to exit the meeting, and a scuffle then broke out between a district resident who had spoken to the board and two staff members.

“I was hoping (Dahlkemper and Fellman) would agree with me,” Noonan said Monday. “Why wouldn’t you agree to a committee? The purpose of having a committee is to help the board understand the issues.”

Noonan said she felt putting a condition on her vote was necessary.

“I have no other way of expressing how concerned I am about how the district’s moving forward with data,” said Noonan, whose term on the board ends this year. “How else am I supposed to convey to the public that I think this is very important?”

Noonan said the board needs more communication on the overall picture of the district’s plan for data use and storage.

“I feel, as a board, we have not done our due diligence in this area,” Noonan said Monday. “(The board is) not a rubber stamp.”

Contact Daniel Laverty at Daniel@evergreenco.comor at 303-350-1043. Follow him on Twitter at @LavertyReports.