A major technology infrastructure upgrade will have to wait for at least another year at Riverside Elementary School District 96 as the school board unanimously rejected a new contract with Comcast that would have vastly upgraded the speed of the Internet connections at the district’s five schools.
Rejecting the Comcast contract that was presented to the school board at its April 15 meeting means the district will have to wait a year until it is again able to apply for a 40-percent discount under the federal government’s E-Rate program, which gives school districts a discount on technology upgrades.
Board members listened to concerns from community members knowledgeable about technology, who maintained that the proposed five-year contract was too long and was not properly vetted.
David Barsotti, a district resident and a technology project manager at the Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, spoke out against the Comcast contract during the public comment potion of the school board meeting prior to the board’s vote.
“This Comcast proposal tonight leaves too many unanswered questions and raises significant issues that need to be addressed,” said Barsotti, who has taken an interest in the district’s technology issues. “I’ve reviewed the Comcast Enterprise Business Services proposal and, in short, it is my professional opinion that you should not approve this proposal tonight.”
Barsotti said the proposal was not adequately vetted and that the district’s incoming technology director should be allowed to make a recommendation.
“You should not commit the district to a five-year technology plan without the expertise of somebody who will thoroughly vet vendors and their truthfulness,” Barsotti said.
The reservations of Barsotti and other tech-savvy community members who have been informally advising school board members proved crucial to the decision of school board member Michael O’Brien to vote to reject the contract and wait a year.
“As much as I’d like to move ahead, I feel bummed out that we can’t do it,” said O’Brien, who has taken the lead on technology infrastructure issues in the district and talks with the informal group of advisors. “I really feel like I’m handcuffed here. I’m to the point — so what, we wait a year.”
After O’Brien expressed his views, other board members echoed concerns that the contract was too long and that it would be best to wait for a recommendation from the incoming technology director.
A mid-year doubling of speed of the district’s bandwidth connections also gave board members a certain degree of comfort that they could live with the current Internet speed for one more year, possibly enhanced by a short-term upgrade.
“I felt that there just wasn’t enough time to really validate this,” said board member Art Perry, who works as software consultant. “I felt that it was just too much, too soon to make a good decision on it.”
The proposed contract would have cost the district $3,120 per month. New fiber-optic cables would have delivered 10 times the bandwidth for Ethernet network service to the Central/Hauser campus and five times the bandwidth to Ames, Blythe Park and Hollywood schools.
Currently, the district pays $200 per month per building for its Ethernet service.
Director of Finance and Operations Zack Zayed answered some questions about the bidding process, noting that you get the lowest price with a longer contract. Zayed said Comcast has generally provided good service to the district.
“We’re happy with their service,” Zayed told the school board members.
As the board discussion went on Superintendent Bhavna Sharma-Lewis recommended that the board wait until the new technology director begins work on July 1 and revisit the issue next year.
“I think we definitely need to look at our Internet speed and all of our infrastructure,” Sharma-Lewis said. “I feel if we have one consistent person with the experience and skill set and knowledge of where we’re at and where we need to be, he can now come up with a plan as to how we’re going to do it and what’s it’s going to look like.”