Alachua County Schools OKs $3.25M Software Purchase

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The Alachua County School Board approved a $3.25 million plan Tuesday to buy a new centralized IT system that will be used for a variety of school and business purposes.

The five-year deal with Wisconsin-based Skyward Inc. follows recent difficulties with the two current systems — Infinite Campus and SunGard/Bi-Tech — and a vetting process to determine which option would be the best fit.

Skyward’s system will cost more initially because of things like implementation, training and software upgrades. But interim Superintendent Sandra H. Hollinger said after Tuesday’s school board meeting that the long-term costs will be roughly the same because Skyward will replace about nine other annual licensing fees.

Hollinger said the initial costs are reasonable to replace the county’s older student-information system (Infinite Campus) and enterprise resource planning systems (SunGard/Bi-Tech), which handle business purposes like accounting, human resources and transportation.

The district has used these for about 10 and 19 years, respectively.

“Student database drives everything in your school district, so you want to get one that’s very forward-looking,” Hollinger said. “Putting in an up-to-date student database is just going to enhance the efficiency and productivity in all aspects at the school site and with our business services.”

Hollinger listed several problems the district has had with Infinite Campus specifically.

A cause of the issues has been the school system being the company’s only Florida client, which created difficulties relating to full-time equivalent services, Hollinger said.

FTE is a state-specific system that calculates how much funding schools receive. Because every state collects FTE differently, Alachua County Public Schools didn’t have the opportunity to talk with other school districts about how they use the product.

“One of our requirements was that the new system had to have at least 12 other clients in this state so we could be a part of their user group,” Hollinger said.

The software really began to show its age when faculty had trouble transferring data to the Department of Education. Hollinger said this was somewhat normal for older software but is nonetheless intolerable because sending such data is necessary for records to be accurate at all times.

Brandon Sedgley, a history, economics and government teacher at Buchholz High School in Gainesville, also noted problems with Infinite Campus. He said his data get lost and are generally difficult to access because of the system’s lack of user-friendliness.

“Infinite Campus works for what we needed on campus, but it’s been kind of difficult,” he said. “It’s hard to navigate.”

Uma Shankar, the school system’s director of instructional technology, spearheaded the effort to find better software. He assembled a group of employees — teachers, secretaries, bookkeepers and others — aimed at adequately representing the variety of staff who would use the software.

This group of about 50 people attended a two-day workshop during which they offered input about which software would work best.

Skyward stood out because it presented the opportunity to merge the district’s student information system and its business services, Hollinger said.

“If you’re going to invest the kind of time and money in training, let’s get a completely seamless system,” she said. “That’s what made a difference.”

Skyward offers solutions to other problems the district has. FTE is integrated into Skyward’s system, for example, and it allows data to be sent to the state directly, Hollinger said. Plus, Skyward serves more than 25 school districts in Florida.

The new software also has an improved portal for parents to access information about their children, Hollinger said.

Before voting to approve the agreement with Skyward, which passed 5-0, school board members extended their gratitude to Shankar for his service.

“I thought the whole process that we went through for picking this was well-done,” board member April M. Griffin said. “You got input from everybody that needed to have input, and I thought that y’all really did an excellent job.

“And now the fun stuff is going to start.”

The training that comes next is the important part, Hollinger said, with Shankar facing the challenge of transitioning the entire district to the new system.

Sedgley said he thinks the transition will be worth the investment.

“I’m sure there will have to be a lot of training, but Buchholz has made it pretty easy in the past,” he said.

The school system aims to have Skyward fully implemented by the start of the 2017-18 school year.

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