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Oklahoma School Districts Rethink Their Infrastructure Plans, Tech Policies

Two district IT leaders spent their summer upgrading wireless networks and creating a better user experience.

by Tanya Roscorla / August 6, 2015
Oklahoma school districts are considering how to keep their infrastructure and policies up to date. Okiefromokla via Wikimedia Commons

Several Oklahoma IT teams have worked hard over the last few months as they figure out how to sustain their infrastructure long-term and revise policies that could make technology access easier this year.

Both Oklahoma City and Tulsa public schools have been upgrading wireless networks and moving to single sign-on for applications this summer. By putting high-density Wi-Fi in 11 high schools, Oklahoma City Public Schools is making sure its students have the wireless access they need to learn with their own devices as well as school devices.

In Oklahoma City's Classen School of Advanced Studies, the IT team is using some leftover technology dollars from a 2007 city tax initiative to bring in mounted projectors and screens, interactive whiteboards, and laptops. They're also replacing the wireless infrastructure in the school down to the classroom level.

This international baccalaureate and fine arts magnet school has high-performing students, but their technology is out of date. Unlike most of the rest of the district, they don't qualify for as many federal Title I and special education dollars, which is how the district funds technology projects in other schools.

"There's a parity issue and an equity issue in that they're technologically disadvantaged because they're not economically disadvantaged," said Eric Hileman, executive director of Information Technology Services at Oklahoma City Public Schools.

But now that they're back to school, they'll be swimming in technology. 

Over in Tulsa Public Schools, the district is trying to anticipate growth in wireless demand for the next 2 to 5 years, and build the capacity and infrastructure to handle it. That means upgrading the wireless network and having a large enough Internet pipe to support more online and cloud-based learning.

Along with that, Tulsa Public Schools wants to make sure that everyone has the same wireless experience no matter what device they're on. And that experience should include easy access to flexible technology systems. For example, an employee should be able to access data applications from personal or work devices, and having a single user name and password to access many applications simplifies that process.

When it comes to Internet filtering, Tulsa Public Schools is stricter than the federal guidelines call for, and they're thinking about whether the guidelines are too restrictive and how to structure their policies differently. Adults are split into different filtering groups while all students at different schools are filtered the same regardless of their age, so the district is considering flipping that approach.

"We're really trying to take a hard look at what are those policies and practices that we have in place, are they assisting our customers, or in many ways are they hindrances?" said Joe Jennings, interim executive director of IT at Tulsa Public Schools.

E-rate Effects

And when it comes to policies, the changes to the E-rate program last year have some pluses and minuses for both districts. This federal program traditionally provided discounts for school districts on telecommunications services and Internet access. But now it's phasing out the telecommunications discounts by 20 percent each year to make room for more discounts on broadband and Wi-Fi, which were previously hard to get.

In Oklahoma City, the change means that the district will be able to upgrade 55 elementary schools and five middle schools with the same high-density wireless that it's funding at the high schools. But something about the upgrade is keeping Hileman up at night. Back in 2009, the district upgraded to a fiber network and updated the switches under a previous technology director. That $24 million project was subsidized by E-rate dollars, and with the changes in the E-rate program, the district has about $6 million to spend on Wi-Fi and broadband over a five-year period, which is not enough to upgrade the network.

"Now I have an infrastructure that's fiscally unsustainable without those E-rate dollars," Hileman said.

And that would be a huge bond issue that voters would have to approve to keep the network upgraded. His team is now trying to figure out a creative way to tackle this problem and make design decisions about the network.

In Tulsa, resources are tight in the general fund, which hasn't been funded at the same level as it was seven to eight years ago. And at a time when the general fund is tight, they're experiencing a 20 percent reduction in discounts for cellular data plans, Web hosting and other things that E-rate normally covered.

On the other hand, they just passed a $415 million capital bond fund and have access to more E-rate money for Wi-Fi and broadband. That allows them to speed up the timeline of projects including infrastructure upgrades over the next six years to take advantage of both funding sources.

At the end of the day, these two Oklahoma districts have done the best they can to prepare for their students this year. And there's still more work to be accomplished when it comes to planning technology funding and policies for the long-haul. 

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