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Clark County’s Technology Growing Pains

Nevada district bets on HP

Dr. Philip Brody, assistant superintendent of technology and information services for the Clark County School District (CCSD) is at the technological helm of the fastest-growing school district in the U.S.: Clark County, Nevada. With nearly 300 schools and a recently installed centralized WAN with 450 HP ProLiant servers serving as its backbone, the CCSD is a model for other robust districts. Here, an interview with Dr. Brody:

The growth of Las Vegas and all of Clark County is legendary: It’s already the 6th largest school district in the U.S. with more than 265,000 students. It has 26,000-plus employees and has an annual operating budget of $1.4 billion. Is the growth still skyrocketing?

Yes. We should have about 400,000 students by 2010. And in area we cover 7,910 square miles, larger than the State of New Jersey.

And in this school year you have almost 300 schools.

Right, 289 schools and we’re opening up 14 schools for next year.

Forgetting for a moment the building of schools ? we’ll come back to that ? how do you keep pace technologically?

Well, there’s a commitment to technology in the district that’s very clear. We couldn’t do the kind of things we’ve been doing without that commitment. As we build schools, we’re also rehabbing existing schools and as part of the rehab projects we’re doing a lot of technology infrastructure [upgrading]. We’re rewiring, reconnecting, acquiring new computers and so on. We have a technology refreshment program so we try to regularly replace computers. We’re never quite as up to date as we’d like, but we’re trying to replace computers after five years. So keeping up is done with difficulty.

What is your IT department responsible for?

We’re the infrastructure department. We handle the central information; we handle all of the networking; we handle the central help desk; we handle all of the break/fix sorts of things; we handle all the voice communications.

Can you give us a snapshot of the Clark School District system?

I’ve been here for the last five-and-a-half-years, and we’ve been trying to [develop] a centralized network with a consistent set of standards for the schools and they would know there are certain things they can’t do on the network: There are certain kinds of computers they need, certain minimum computer configurations they need to access the network.

We have been trying very hard to stress that it’s one single network and we’re all on it together. It can’t work with everyone doing whatever they want. Those days are gone.

So what IT direction is the Clark County district committed to?

Our big initiative is a widearea network throughout the district. First of all, we’re replacing the framerelay system. When we came in 1998, there was no uniform connectivity. In every school, there were five different ways one could connect to the Internet. We then put in a frame-relay network, so at least we had one single wide area network. Now we’re replacing the framerelay network and we’ll have that completed by November.

What will the finished system look like?

Every school in the district will have high-speed broadband. It’ll be a fully converged network. We’re also putting a Voice-over IP phone in every classroom.

The notion that the students and staff expect a certain level of technology service — where they don’t even want to be down for an hour — is that a too-high standard or is it just about par today?

I think one of the issues is that no one wants to be down at all. Heck, no one wants to even be slow. One of the reasons we went with this wide-area network is to get ahead of the curve. In education and technology, everyone’s always behind, always playing catch-up. We’ve got to expand our bandwidth.

Are you concerned that your entire IT system may become obsolete before it’s even finished?

Well, eventually it will be out of date, that’s just the nature of the beast. But we’ll be okay for a number of years.