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Avoiding Large-Scale Contract Problems

Everything that could have gone wrong seemingly did in the Apple computer contract with Cobb County School District in Georgia last summer, according to investigating firm, Kessler International, which specializes in corporate investigations.

The multi-million dollar contract was approved in July and then terminated in August by the Cobb County School Board, which found the school system "deceived the public" in choosing to buy thousands of laptop computers for teachers and students in grades 6-12. The debacle then led Superintendent Joseph Redden to resign, though he defended his administration's actions. A Cobb County Schools spokesman declined to comment.

Kessler International was called in July for a forensic audit. "Everything that could have gone wrong seems to have gone wrong," says Kessler President and CEO Michael Kessler.s

Kessler adds that it appears the Cobb County taxpayers never loved the laptop project's price tag, which was more than $88 million. Parents were also concerned, it appears, that students could not be responsible for roughly $1,000 iBooks.

Bidding documents showed that Dell and IBM exceeded Apple and Hewlett-Packard in terms of offerings and quality of their products. The original evaluation committee unbeknownst to them was disbanded during the process, Kessler says, and another, smaller committee was created, which was a "red flag."

Procurement Tips

Kessler International spokesman Nicholas Vrona offers these tips to administrators embarking on a large procurement:

Don't deviate from policy. Follow written policies no matter what personal feelings may arise. If a certain policy seems obsolete or inappropriate, make sure to amend policy through the correct channels rather than simply ignoring it.

Document everything, including minutes of meetings and backups of all e-mails. Often casually sent e-mails and spreadsheets often point to wrongdoing that might go unnoticed without carefully maintained records.

Look at long-term costs, such as regular maintenance or tech support or the need for temp workers. Will staff need to be trained? Will there be mechanical problems? Sometimes such costs are not considered and contracts go downhill.

Remember whom you represent. Particularly for those in public office, remembering that mistakes will be "publicly scrutinized by irate taxpayers can help keep those in charge honest."

Effective Principal Preparation

Effective school leadership, which seems to be a perennial topic in education circles, comes from a variety of steps. School Leadership Study: Developing Successful Principals: Review of Research is a report from Stanford Educational Leadership Institute and commissioned by The Wallace Foundation.

Some ideas include:

Effective program design: Effective programs are research-based, provide experiences in authentic contexts and have coherent curriculum, use mentors and collaborate with area schools.

Multiple paths to quality development: Some programs focus on leadership and management skills while others target instructional practice with varied program structures.

Policy reform and finances: More research is needed to understand how programs are created, governed and financed before policy reform occurs.

The School Bus: Safest School Travel

Despite bus accidents, more students who drive to school, get rides in cars, walk, or bike die in motor vehicle crashes during school travel hours. Only about 2 percent, or 20 students a year, die in school bus crashes, according to national transportation reports.


Graduation Rate Up for Debate

What exactly is the graduation rate in the U.S.? Is it as elusive as the dropout rate?

That would seem to make sense, but Larry Mishel, president of Economic Policy Institute, says the graduation rate of American teenagers, even black and minority kids, is better than what has been previously reported.

Mishel says EPI found that the high school graduation rate hovers around 78 percent, compared to 67 percent that some other organizations report. While the figure dates back to 1992, trends have not changed much over time, or if so, they are getting better, Mishel says. The 2000 U.S. Census shows that nearly 84 percent of students, including recent immigrants, completed high school.

When districts tally up graduation rates based on the number of students who enter ninth grade compared to where they are four years later, they miss out on students who repeat ninth grade, Mishel says. Many schools also don't have the management information systems that would track students better across systems, he adds.

But regardless of figures, experts say many students are unprepared to do college-level work or compete in the real world upon graduation.

Stats Blast
Key Factors to Improve Schools and Student Achievement:

  • Greater emphasis on experience-based learning ....47%
  • More parental involvement .....................................42%
  • Better testing and accountability ..............................2%
  • One-to-One Desktops In Indiana

    Indiana high schools are testing Linux desktop machines as part of a state plan to provide every public high school student with a computer, according to Linspire, Inc., which sells the Linux-based operating system.

    If successful, the plan, Indiana Access Program, will provide each high school student with a desktop computer for academics in each classroom they visit, meaning 300,000 machines could be deployed in coming years.

    One school in the town of Lynn is already feeling the effects, with students excited about projects, exploring the Internet and even taking notes with the computers.

    Internet2: Marking Faster Territory

    What was once supposed to be Internet territory is slowly being taken over by something bigger and better: Internet2. About 24,000 schools nationwide are taking advantage of higher bandwidth, which enables high-definition broadcasting, multicasting and videoconferencing; crisper images; and faster connections thanks to Internet2, a not-for-profit consortium led by more than 200 American universities. Internet2 recreates the academia, industry and government partnership that helped create the existing Internet, or commodity Internet, when it was first born.

    In Pennsylvania alone, districts use it for science, history, geography, and real-life lessons, allowing experts to talk to students via videoconferences and allowing students to see, in real time, experiments or projects.

    Educators are saying the network keeps students engaged in learning as they get to see real projects they would otherwise just read about in books or online. Students can watch astronauts work on the International Space Station, they can peer over the shoulder of a heart surgeon operating, or go underwater via a camera to learn about sea creatures. They can even exchange ideas with students in Japan and Taiwan.

    "Kids are taking ownership of what they can do," says Kim Breuninger, instructional technology specialist at Chester County Intermediate Unit in Downington, Penn.

    "This is giving them tools to expand their local horizons and enrich the curriculum. It's not adding, but enhancing and promoting cultural awareness and sharing across cultures," adds Gina Vives, director of technology at Delaware Valley School in Pennsylvania.

    But James Gates, instructional technology trainer at Capital Area Intermediate Unit, says there is some understandable teacher resistance to use it because they need to focus more time on matching standards and raising test scores given NCLB demands.

    The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia is among the first science centers in the U.S. to use the network. With Internet2, science centers can present real-time interactivity with scientists and research laboratories.

    Karen Elinich, Franklin's director of educational technology, says they recently brought a neurogeneticist in to discuss with Pennsylvania high school students genetic tendencies. The scientist used dogs to explain why retrievers retrieve and pit bulls dig. "I personally don't think kids or teachers have the opportunity to interact with a neurogeneticist" on any real basis, Elinich says.

    Large, Poor Schools Suspend Students

    A new national study found that large, high-poverty middle and high schools, compared to elementary and K-12 suburban and rural schools, are more likely to discipline, suspend or expel unruly or problem students.

    The study, Which Schools Take Severe Disciplinary Actions? A Secondary Analysis of School Survey on Crime & Safety, by a researcher at University of Missouri-Columbia shows the schools took severe disciplinary actions mainly due to physical attacks or fights, insubordination, and threats or intimidation. Only 5 percent of the actions were due to using firearms or other weapons.

    Creationism Debate Rages On

    The evolutionary debate was upped a notch recently when President Bush voiced his support for intelligent design to be explained in science classes nationwide.

    When asked if he believed both evolution and intelligent design should be taught in schools, Bush replied he did "so people can understand what the debate is about."

    The issue is being battled out in school board rooms and court rooms in various states as scientists push for evolution lessons and others believe students should also learn that an intelligent being is likely behind the creation of such a complex, natural world.

    Ambassador Hotel to be Razed

    Most of the historic Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, where the late Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated nearly 40 years ago, is set to be razed to make room for a $318 million campus for K-12 students.

    A Los Angeles Superior Court ruled last summer that the Los Angeles Unified School District can proceed with plans, after the Los Angeles Conservancy and other organizations filed a suit against demolition on the 24-acre property where movie stars, politicians and royalty once mingled.

    Pesticides Sicken School Kids

    Using pesticides in or near schools sickened more than 2,500 children and school employees over five years, a national report found.

    Researchers at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that sources include chemicals to kill insects and weeds, disinfectants and farming pesticides.

    CropLife America says the report is alarmist and pesticide use can be managed so it's not an unreasonable health risk.

    To combat such illness experts suggest:

    Adopting pesticide spray buffer zones around schools

    Implementing integrated pest management program

    Practicing reduction in pesticide drift from nearby farms

    Financial Planning for The Future

    Teachers are leaving their classrooms with retirement as the biggest factor given the aging population. Administrators can help teachers save for their retirement years and keep them abreast of changes in the IRS rules.

    "We've done national polls and focused on educating teachers about the need to save more," says Kathy Murphy, group president of ING, U.S. Institutional Financial Services. "Based on the research overall, two-thirds of Americans don't feel they will have enough to pay themselves in retirement based on when they want to retire, based on how much they've saved and based on how long they will actually live."

    If a teacher lives to 100, 40 years is a long time to live off retirement savings, she adds.

    Administrators need to educate teachers on the benefits of saving a little bit every paycheck, Murphy says. One teacher in Wisconsin saved a million dollars over her career.

    Administrators or union members can keep teachers abreast of the carriers providing the services. The IRS has newly proposed 403(b) plan rules, which will likely change the way the school runs its program, Murphy notes.

    42% of Teachers are Age 50 or Older: Ways to Take Action

    Establish a plan to cover optional features that the school may want to offer

    Provide annual notice to all eligible employees to take part in the 403(b) program

    Review part-time employees and substitute teacher hours. If they work at least 1,000 hours within a year, remind them they can take part in 403(b)

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