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Schools planning tech upgrade

Saranac Lake school district becoming more dependent on the Internet

December 11, 2010
By NATHAN BROWN, Enterprise Staff Writer

SARANAC LAKE - The Saranac Lake Central School Board is planning to seek voter approval at some point both for a large-scale renovation of the more than 40-year-old high school library and a $1 million improvement of its decade-old technology infrastructure.

The technology improvements are all in the planning stages, but would include software, network and server upgrades and expansion of the district's wireless Internet, on a secured network, throughout the district's buildings. The district would roll it into the library project to increase the amount of state aid the district would get to help pay for it, said district Superintendent Gerald Goldman.

With more and more computer programs and uses for the Internet, the current system is inadequate.

Article Photos

Saranac Lake High School students take part in a computer exploration class, which is a graduation requirement, in one of the downstairs computer labs.
(Enterprise photo — Nathan Brown)

"The more stuff we throw down the pipe here, the tougher it's getting," Goldman said.

Some of the programs the district uses now are web-based, so having a slow Internet connection can cause problems. One example Goldman cited is NovaNET, a program the district uses for students to get credits for a class without having to repeat it. The district's student management system, SchoolTool, is also web-based.

"That's the thing. Most of the work we all do now, it's not on an installed ... piece of dedicated software," Goldman said. "You go online; that's how you access it all."

An upgrade would help present streaming videos, said Petrova Middle School Principal Patricia Kenyon. She said teachers are using these a lot more now, since they "actively engage the students in the lesson" and make it "more real."

The bulk of the upgrade would focus on the high school. High School Principal Bruce VanWeelden said a lack of bandwidth has become an issue.

"There are more and more people utilizing the Internet, and Internet resources," VanWeelden said. "It's almost like plumbing. You can't fit the number of users at the same time."

The high school has one computer lab off the library that is open for teachers to bring their students, or for student use during study halls. There are two more downstairs that are used predominantly for computer classes, but they are available to other users to sign in when classes aren't using them.

The $2.3 million cost of the library and the tech upgrade would be paid for with a 15-year bond. State aid would cover a little less than half of the total repayments, leaving the amount to be covered by taxes in the $100,000 to $108,000 annual range.

The upgrade plans are being drawn up by Mark Leopard, the district's computer network administrator who was hired early this year, and Bernier, Carr and Associates, with help from Cisco. Leopard presented a slideshow to the school board in November, explaining the current network and some recommendations for the future.

Goldman said the project, including the cost estimates of the bond breakdown, would be discussed again at the school board's next regular meeting in January.

Goldman has described the current system as "jerry-rigged" and a "patchwork."

"We didn't spend a lot of money to put this thing together," Goldman said. "Back then you could get away with it. Nobody was streaming video 15 years ago."

The district has a Time Warner business class cable Internet connection, and wireless is scattered throughout the district. It is better at Petrova School than at the high school, Leopard said. The high school has a wireless access point below the library, near the district offices. There are also portable wireless routers that can be brought to classrooms with laptops. These are used in journalism classes, for example, VanWeelden said.

"It's been spotty at times for a variety of reasons," VanWeelden said of the wireless connection. "Wireless adaptors in computers get turned off, or the system itself is not working."

There are also wireless connections at Bloomingdale Elementary School, mainly in the library.

In his presentation, Leopard recommended standardizing the wireless with Cisco, with a centralized control system covering the high school, Petrova and Bloomingdale schools. The system could be secured and encrypted to prevent unauthorized users, and could potentially be "seamless," allowing people to keep using it as they move through the building.

VanWeelden said this would lead to a "philosophical question" the district would have to deal with: The possibility that students would be able to get online anywhere in the building, anytime, with personal devices. He said this is "another question or issue we need to look at."

Leopard's presentation mentioned several potential options to upgrade the current cable Internet connection, including investigating Time Warner's fiberoptic offerings.

The district could save bandwidth, thus allowing for more use of the Internet for things such as streaming audio and video on educational sites, by changing the way security patches are downloaded. Currently, it's up to the computer or the user to download these, leading to different computers being at different levels and to downloads taking place at different times, often in the middle of the day, slowing up the network.

Leopard is working on a prototype system that would provide a single point of contact to get patches from Microsoft. He would then approve or disapprove the patches, with the ones that were approved going to all the computers at the same time.

"So now you don't have 600 PCs running out to the Internet," Leopard said of the possible new system. "By doing that, we can control what patches go down, when they go down, (and) also control the amount of traffic that leaves the school."

Also, about 90 percent of the e-mails the district receives are spam. Currently, these are scanned by the district's spam filter.

"That's quite a bit of traffic that has to come into the school's system," Leopard said.

One option, Leopard said, would be to have the scanning done offsite.

"They would filter all of that stuff out before the traffic even gets ... to the district," Leopard said. "That would also, potentially, save some bandwidth."

The planned upgrade also includes modernizing the servers and the "switching equipment," which handles the traffic and allows the computers to communicate with the servers and go out to the Internet. The switching equipment is a patchwork from several companies. Some is from Cabletron, which hasn't existed as a single entity since 2002, making the availability of replacement parts doubtful. The seven servers date back to 2004-2005, and their storage capacity is limited.

The district now has about 700 computers, 600 desktop computers and 100 laptops. Most of them are older than five years old, according to Leopard, and many of the desktops are nine years old. The laptops are mostly Dell, while the desktops are a mix of Dell, Gateway and computers built "in-house" by the IT essentials class at the high school.

The current plan does not call for new computers, Goldman said. Leopard has recommended that the district standardize on a single vendor in the future.

Much of the district's software is outdated, and the companies have ended support for it. The server operating system is Windows Server 2003, which Microsoft ended support for in July 2009. Support ended for the desktop operating system, Windows 2000, in July 2003. Support ended for the e-mail system, Microsoft Exchange 2003, in April 2009, and the e-mail does not have an archival system. In his presentation, Leopard recommended replacing these with newer, better programs that are still supported.

The current cost projections show the bulk of the upgrade's construction cost - $499,439 - would be at the high school. The district has predicted spending $173,256 at Petrova, $73,906 at Bloomingdale and $5,000 at the bus garage. Nothing is slated for Lake Colby, which the district is considering closing next year.

As well as the per-building construction cost, the estimate includes $75,160 for contingency expenses and $206,691 for incidental costs to arrive at the $1,033,452 estimate.

Contact Nathan Brown at 891-2600 ext. 26 or



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