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Pioneer District explains $400,000 computer costs

Northfield, Warwick to vote on technology plan tonight

NORTHFIELD — Officials from Pioneer Valley Regional School District’s member towns faced with the district’s plans to borrow $400,000 for computer upgrades finally got the explanation they were asking for.

The main drive behind the plan is the schools’ outdated operating system, aging computers and servers running a system from now-defunct Novell Inc. District officials argued that the schools’ computers systems would be in jeopardy without the upgrades.

District towns Bernardston, Leyden, Northfield and Warwick had said that they did not have enough information about the technology plan to recommend that their voters support it. Bernardston, Northfield and Warwick have all included town meeting articles asking voters whether to approve the debt.

Northfield and Warwick will both hold their annual meetings tonight , and it only takes a single town to defeat the borrowing.

The School Committee’s Budget Subcommittee met Thursday to discuss the plan and its necessity with member towns.

The schools’ servers run on Windows XP, but Microsoft has announced that it will no longer support the system, first released in 2001. The district plans to replace it with Windows 8.1. The plan calls for server hardware upgrades and the replacement of all computers more than 5 years old.

Another $420 would be used to buy a program that gives Windows 8.1 the look and feel of previous Windows systems like Windows 7 or XP. The newer version has been criticized by many for its “tablet” feel, with the traditional setup replaced with a tiled interface more suited to a touchscreen.

Warwick Town Coordinator David Young questioned whether the district needs to replace 266 aging PCs with brand new Windows 8.1 machines at $700 each, for a total of $186,000.

To demonstrate, he brought in a refurbished, 3-year-old Windows 7 desktop he’d just bought for $150. He said these could shave off nearly $150,000, perhaps more if there is a bulk discount.

The district’s network manager, Michael Holloway, said that computers in schools typically have a useful life of five years, and worried that older machines may need to be replaced much sooner.

Young argued that it would be cheaper to buy used machines every two years than new ones every five. He gave Holloway the $150 computer so he could assess it.

Aging computers could prove to be a problem as the state prepares to adopt a new online standardized test.

Pioneer and Bernardston Elementary School were chosen as pilot sites for the new Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers test.

Bernardston’s old Macintosh computers didn’t meet the test’s requirements and the school had to gather other computers for the students to take the test. Seventeen of the school’s iMacs are slated for replacement. At $1,249 each, they account for $21,233 of the replacement plan.

The PARCC is set to replace MCAS in 2016, and will be required of schools across the state. Some at the meeting asked how much money the state has put forward to help schools get ready for the test.

“Not one red cent,” said district Superintendent Dayle Doiron.

William Wahlstrom, chairman of the Budget Subcommittee, said the committee is fed up with the unfunded mandates handed down to schools from the state and federal governments. The members are not alone; the issue has come up at Selectboard and Finance Committee meetings in member towns.

In the end, Doiron promised that, if towns approve the borrowing, the district would have a consultant review the technology replacement plan. That review, she said, would identify possible savings, as well as addressing the needs of the future, rather than just trying to fix the current problems.

However the district proceeds in upgrading its computers and equipment, officials say it has to happen fast. The school year is over in late June and resumes at the end of August, leaving less than two months to work.

Pioneer Principal William Wehrli said that his school wouldn’t be able to function if the needed computer equipment isn’t installed by the time school opens in the fall.

You can reach David Rainville at: drainville@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 279 @RecorderRain

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