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IG Flags Wilbraham School's 'Smart' Lighting System as Risk

The Massachusetts Office of the Inspector General issued guidance advising schools to be cautious about adopting new building technologies after malware and other technical issues rendered a lighting system at Minnechaug Regional High School inoperable.

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(TNS) — To avoid wasting public money and suffering system failures, the Office of the Inspector General has issued guidance that uses a problem at a Wilbraham school as a statewide example.

The Inspector General, Jeffrey S. Shapiro, said adopting new building technologies carries operational and fiscal risks.

Without controls in place, school districts can face a world of trouble, Shapiro says, as happened with Minnechaug Regional High School. Its faulty lighting system gained national notoriety and was mentioned on Saturday Night Live.

Minnechaug was rebuilt in 2012 as a participant in the MSBA's "Model School" program. After only 11 years, its network-based "digital addressable lighting interface," or DALI, failed.

Issues with repairs began in August 2021. The server was corrupted by malware and went into default mode. The system ran on a server that could be accessed remotely outside the school, but the school did not have access to the backup software or an override switch. By 2021, the lighting controls system became too old for continuing support and the company also been acquired by another firm.

School lights remained on continuously for 18 months. To turn off the lights, Minnechaug needed to upgrade the system.

"The students are fine, but the classroom hamster has gone insane," Colin Jost, comedian, writer, and actor joked on Saturday Night Live.

Shapiro provided the guidance to the Massachusetts School Building Authority treasurer, Deborah Goldberg, and its executive director, Mary Pichetti, in an email Sept. 21.


The reason Shapiro issued the guidance is to make sure districts and the school building authority put thought to the risks that smart systems pose.

Shapiro asked the MSBA and district partners to consider certifying that systems are designed and installed by qualified and reputable vendors. He said they should use open sources, rather than proprietary software, have incident response plans, identify and determine service needs and use service agreements and enhanced warranty protections.

Shapiro said the MSBA is qualified to help school districts maximize the benefits of innovation, while preventing catastrophes.

School districts seeking to upgrade should consider the benefits and risks when seeking approval for funding for new construction and upgrades, he said.

New technology as an energy conservation measure has benefits that include improvements in student learning, working conditions for staff, safety, operations and energy management.

Shapiro said the difficulties with Minnechaug's web-based lighting system, which ended up costing the school district upwards of $150,000 in excess electricity costs and repairs, should serve as a cautionary tale for current and future school building projects.

At Minnechaug, supply chain issues delayed the hardware repairs until October 2022 and software upgrades until February 2023.

Based on this information from the Hampden-Wilbraham Regional School District superintendent's office, Shapiro said, the MSBA should help school districts lessen risks arising from smart building technology by considering his recommendations.

©2023 The Republican, Springfield, Mass. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.