California Educational Data Processing Association
The DataBus - Vol. 36, No. 5
August-September, 1996

Some Thoughts on Choosing New Administrative Systems

Process: Define system needs carefully and ensure that proposed solutions actually meet those needs.

Ken Jones, Lodi Unified School District

As eluded to in previous columns, my school district hired me to purchase and install new administrative systems. Their rationale was that, as a district of 25,000 students, we were at a size that an independent data center made sense. It also made sense because the systems provided by our county office were beginning to really show their age. I suspect that many of you have either purchased new systems recently or are considering them now (with the millennium and state account code problems looming before us). I thought I'd so bold as to relate some of the pearls of wisdom that have come to me during this process with the hope that some of you may find value in them. If this is all old news to you, never mind.

First, here is a small amount of background. Our district has a technology department but we do not have computer programmers and never expect to get funding for them (read: we must have "shrink-wrapped" software). Because we have been using the county system, we currently have no investment in any particular hardware platform, and no significant expertise that would push us to favor one platform over another. All of our desktop computers are Apple Macintoshes. We have Ethernet run to all workstations in the district office and are rapidly deploying wide area connections to the schools and installing Ethernet in the school offices. We are routing only two protocols right now, Appletalk and TCP/IP.

We have chosen a new student information system and a new operations management system. The PO's are cut and we are having the first meetings with the vendors' implementation teams. The payroll will be running by January, 1997. The Spring, 1997 scheduling will be done on the new SIS for the 1997-98 school year in our four middle and three high schools. The rest of the implementation will progress at a more leisurely pace over the next two years.

So much for who we are--here, in no particular order, are my thoughts regarding the selection process we have just been through.

  1. Do no spend forever defining your needs. Assume that any reputable vendor with an installed base is likely to meet the basic needs of a school district or county office in California. Figure out what is truly different about your environment and make sure the vendor supports whatever that is.
  2. Do not send out a 200 page RFP. Vendors' profit margins are not that large and if you ask them to answer thousands of questions about their software, they may simply pass on responding. You can lose out on some important options this way.
  3. Do script the vendor demonstrations so that you force the vendors to show you what is important to your users, not just what is flashy about their software. Be aware that the software demonstrations take much longer than you expect. Allow one and a half days per vendor for a full operational management system demonstration. Allow a full day per vendor for a student information system demonstration.
  4. There is absolutely no right answer. This means that there is something that you won't like about everything that you see. You are likely to choose among the best of all evils. We attempted to find things about software that we absolutely could not live with (for example--a student system which could not handle year-round sessions was unacceptable).
  5. The losing vendors were perfect ladies and gentlemen. This came as a surprise after my involvement with other bids processes which ended up with vendors screaming at the Board of Education. The vendors invested a great deal of time and money in responding to our RFP and presenting their demonstrations--but if they didn't get our business, they accepted that fact very gracefully.
  6. Regardless of their marketing hype, many of the non-traditional K-12 fund accounting software vendors are not really interested in breaking into our market. I sent out 17 RFP's for operational management systems and only four came back. Of those four, three had K-12 specific packages. One non-K-12 vendor went so far as to claim that if they were not involved with writing the RFP, then they did not feel they had a chance to win the bid. I found that statement insulting. I came away feeling that K-12 is still a tough market for the big boys to play in. We have a couple of things that are unique (PERS/STRS for one) and they can't do them yet.
  7. After we determined that a software package performed the basic functions required by the district staff, we changed our focus to the vendor and the technology they used. Five years from now we do not want to be in the same position that we are in today. The vendor had to demonstrate a track record of continual improvement. They had to understand modern issues such as connecting their data to external tools like desktop spreadsheets and the Internet standards. They had to be running on industry standard hardware (yes, I know, Macs don't really fall into that category). They had to have installation methods in place which would get us up and running in our time frame without turning the district on its ear. They had to have a user community that had regular meetings. They had to have 800 number telephone support and electronic support methods in place (like an Internet technical web site).
  8. Do go to the corporate offices of the finalists and meet both the big wheels and the people on the other end of the phone. This can be a very enlightening experience.
  9. Do visit the districts or county offices which have fully implemented the version of the software you are considering. Never take the vendor along with you. Don't even tell them when you are going. When you talk to district staff, talk to the clerks who are down in the trenches to get the real story.
  10. Change is very hard. Remember, those of us in the IS field are used to our entire world changing every couple of months--other district staff do not live in that world. If you have the time and money, hire an outside group which will teach the district staff how to best deal with change. This should be done prior to the start of software implementation so the staff is more ready for this gut wrenching process. By the way, we didn't do this and will be paying for it.

You have probably noticed that I did not mention what software or hardware we have chosen. Well, what we chose may or may not work for you. If you would like to find out what is working for Lodi, please drop me an e-mail ([email protected]) and I would be happy to share with you.

If you are doing part or all of what is described here, I wish you good luck--it is a fun experience.

Don't forget the most important part of your software search--attending the CEDPA conference in October!!!

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