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Open Source Software: A Budget Cutter’s Ally?

Even with stimulus dollars flowing nationwide, districts are still facing large budget deficits and are looking for ways to save money. Some are investigating free and open source software (FOSS ) as a result.

FOSS applications are the work of communities of developers, usually volunteers, who keep the source code open and allow the software to be distributed for free. Any user can customize it, add to it, and fix its bugs. Although FOSS has been around for decades and used in many industries, school districts have generally been slow to embrace it.

That has changed in recent years, however, as FOSS education-oriented programs such as Moodle, a learning management system, and Edubuntu, an operating system, have demonstrated a high level of functionality and stability. FOSS also received a big boost when Florida adopted FreeReading as a supplemental reading program for the 2008-2009 school year, making it the first state to adopt an open source instructional program.

Michael St. Jean, director of technology for the Pawtucket (R.I.) School Department and an advocate of FOSS , says that the recession is causing him to search for additional FOSS applications that can work in his district. “We’re a financially challenged district. Open source fills the gap where we can’t afford a commercial product,” he explains.

Still, the Pawtucket district doesn’t use as much FOSS as St. Jean believes it could. He identifies two reasons why: First, teachers have been reluctant to give up commercial software applications they are comfortable with; second, he and his small tech team can’t provide the same level of support as a large software vendor can.

St. Jean therefore looks for strong FOSS applications he can run in the background. One such application is Drupal, a content management system the district has used for three years to host its Web site. Drupal recently made waves when Obama administration officials chose it to host, the Web site tracking the spending from the stimulus package.

The longer districts face budget pressures, the more attractive FOSS is likely to become. Tech directors such as St. Jean don’t need to be persuaded. “If we had a large department, if we had ongoing support, I would love to move more to open source,” he says.