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Perfect Internet storm sinks Berkshire Hills websites

This is what happens when we manage things like this. In any other business, they would spend money to get it back up and running. -- BHRSD School Committee member Rich Bradway

Great Barrington — School buses are moving, backpacks are loaded, and lunch boxes have already begun to stink. But something is missing.

The Berkshire Hills Regional School District’s website, as well as Muddy Brook Elementary’s and Monument Valley Regional Middle School’s web sites are all down. District technology staff is scrambling to build new sites, and have created temporary pages in their place.

The perfect technology storm began when the district, wanting to improve and economize by moving to a cloud-based system that would increase bandwidth and double capacity, eventually saving $30,000 per year, began migrating student data, said district School Committee vice-chair and Education Technology Subcommittee chair Richard Bradway.

The district had contracted with a new Internet service provider, Integrity By Celt (Center for Educational Leadership and Technology), that uses the broadband network through the Massachusetts Broadband Institute(MBI). MBI is a statewide program to provide rural communities with high-speed, high-capacity broadband Internet access.

During this “comprehensive migration,” said Bradway, the district’s new Internet service provider went down, affecting not only the Berkshire Hills schools, but other schools as well, including Pittsfield Public Schools.

“Unfortunately, coincidentally,” said Bradway, “at the same time that we were moving to new system and training teachers.”

The situation was worsened by timing of the fiscal budget and a resignation of one of the district’s technology staff, he said. “It all highlighted certain deficiencies.”

Bradway, Associate Director of E Commerce and New Media for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, is working with the “Ed Tech” subcommittee and district IT staff to increase webpage “capacity and speed,” and “to get up to industry-level standards.” He said it is part of a multi-year “technology vision plan for the district.”

PowerSchool, an online grade, class assignment and attendance management system, is more “user friendly” for teachers, students and parents, said Bradway. The Internet-based system is more economical, since it is “run by somebody else.” This, said Bradway, should allow IT staff to spend their time more efficiently.

During the first week of school, however, the tech meltdown had “teachers pulling their hair out,” said Superintendent Peter Dillon, at the Thursday (September 4) School Committee meeting.

Superintendent Peter Dillon and School Committee Chair Stehen Bannon listen during discussion of district's website problems.
Superintendent Peter Dillon and School Committee Chair Stehen Bannon listen during discussion of district’s website problems.

Dillon noted that the district is quickly trying to replace the IT staff member. In the meantime, said Dillon, a local firm will pick up the slack. He is interested, he said, in hiring an “outside consultant to do a technology audit.”

“Rich is bailing us out,” Dillon said of Bradway’s work to build out the websites. “It’s not the way we should run this part of the district.”

Of each school website, Bradway said that his team is “working towards building it out as quickly and thoughtfully as possible.” The websites have temporary pages that have content urging patience and providing important phone numbers and links for parents and teachers. Each site has a counter that shows progress down to the minute.

The district plans to have a backup Internet provider, in the event of another outage, said Bradway.

It was rough timing for the district.

At last night’s meeting in the middle school library, the school website couldn’t be accessed. An “irony,” said committee member Daniel Weston.

“It’s important to pay for things,” said Bradway of a problem that “is somewhat a function of resources.” He said such an important tool should not be “an afterthought.”

“This is what happens when we manage things like this,” he added. “In any other business, they would spend money to get it back up and running.”

School Committee member Fred Clark.
School Committee member Fred Clark.

And, said committee member Frederick Clark, “we’ve had all summer to work on it.” He said he supported using funds to “accelerate the process.”

Wherever the funds come from, committee Chair Stephen Bannon said he “wants a thought-out plan with how we spend this money.” He said he wanted to be “conservative” and careful.

“Just throwing money at everything won’t solve it,” he said.

Bannon also said that relying on volunteers, “however gifted” for “such an important task,” isn’t such a hot idea.

Bradway said he had a deadline to get critical information up on the sites by the end of next week.

“Eighty-eight percent of the infrastructure is in place,” he said. Later he added that “there are things we could have done better, and some that were completely out of our hands.”

As the websites get fixed, the district is also awaiting word from the Massachusetts School Buildings Authority(MSBA) in order to make the final decision about the wording of the high school renovation re-vote ballot item, which must be finalized 45 days before the November 4 election.

The elections commission within the Secretary of State’s office decides whether to allow the vote on the high school renovation to be placed on the general election ballot.

Committee Chair Bannon pointed out that while Berkshire Hills can suggest ballot language, it is up to the MSBA to draft the ballot text. The November 4 re-vote places the district’s new $51.2 million renovation plan for Monument Mountain Regional High School before the voters of the district’s three towns, Great Barrington, Stockbridge and West Stockbridge.

Bannon noted that the “wording on the last ballot was very confusing.”

MSBA, which will reimburse the district $23.2 million if voters give it a green light, is aware of the deadline for the ballot language, and will work with the district in a timely fashion, according to Superintendent Dillon.

What also remains to be seen is whether district voters will get a separate ballot sheet for the high school renovation item. Bannon said the committee is advocating for the simplicity of one ballot, but said it was another decision that was not up to the committee.

 

 

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