Smart Networking Decisions: A Kase Study

Warren Township, IN, has set its sights on becoming a district that lights the way for others to follow when it comes to technology. But how Warren's director of technology, Raymond F. Kase, has chosen to accomplish that end does raise eyebrows and envy.

A former band director who found he had a knack for fixing computers on the side, Kase stepped into this eastside Indianapolis school system in April 1997 unafraid to make waves. In fact, the mild-spoken but driven administrator welcomed that activity to push him toward the success the township wanted to accomplish in months rather than years.

Even before the school board formally approved his technology plan, Kase completed the district's wide area network (WAN) upgrade to provide a customized, one-prefix arrangement that allows four-digit dialing between any two phones in the district. Now every extension has voice and broadcast mail capabilities - groundwork that whetted the faculty and staff's interest on the public relations side. What's more, it established the tone for efficiency, which he began selling immediately.

Wiring by the Numbers

Kase outlines his entire plan succinctly on three lines of a one-page presentation sheet: wire eight buildings, install 2,400 PCs, set new policies/procedures, create a help desk, and create an Intranet. Reality, of course, isn't as brief.

Simply choosing the "right" wiring required firm decisions. "There are always cutting-edge solutions, and I can get a lot of support for that technology," Kase says. "But if I go too far, that support disappears as the standards change underneath me. Cable is proven technology, so its industry standard is easy for us to manage." To avoid painting himself into a corner, Kase did connect the closets with fiber, so he could switch out some hubs in the future and run at 100 megabits rather than the current 10.

Keeping the horse before the cart, Kase also hired full-time a former cable television installer who wanted a less stressful job to help lay out and maintain this anticipated cabling. (Nor did it hurt that this dream employee graduated from Warren Township, ensuring his on-going pride in the district's future.) His new PC/network technician mapped the entire wiring routes, one building at a time, even laying out the necessary cable trays.

Taking a page from California's NetDay program, Kase posted pleas to the community to help him pull the actual wires for each building. On average, an elementary school building attracted 80 to 90 teachers, staff, and parents as volunteers - middle schools hauled in 168 willing hands - all working on the promise of a free meal. (Teachers also responded well to the promise of a working phone on their desks come Monday, an office fixture most executives take for granted, but a treat teachers have done without for years.) Thanks to the professional legwork, the crews finished pulling the wires in approximately six and a half hours.

Kase's bill for the wiring ran close to $300,000, but his volunteer route saved the township an additional $2.5 million, as labor represents 90 percent of the job's cost. He also boasts the tidiest cable closets in the country, hands-down, thanks to his installer's previously untapped artistic bent.

Standardization for Success

Warren Township ranks among the fastest growing of the eight township school districts in Indianapolis. Currently, 10,600 students stream through its 10 elementary schools, three middle schools, and a megaplex high school campus/career center complex. For the past two years, Warren has grown at 250 students per year - a rate that merits additional state aid, and eventually will demand an 11th elementary school and a fourth middle school.

Kase's technology plan calls for four computers in each classroom, in addition to a teacher's computer station and machines set up in laboratories, media centers, offices, and reception areas. "Basically it gets to a point where it's ubiquitous - we have machines everywhere," he says. On paper, that tallies to a grand total of 4,400 new computers added to the existing 1,000 inherited boxes between fall 1998 and spring 2000. Not to mention the board-approved path that calls for replacement boxes every three years. The entire concept represents a repair headache this technology director intends to cure before it reaches migraine levels.

His aspirin is a simple edict: Macintoshes are not welcome here. Only the high school publications department can access this platform, as educators there strive to provide a real-world graphics layout experience - and that, too, will convert in a few years, Kase assures. "The hardest part is explaining to the teachers why they can't have a Mac," he admits. "I tell them this school computer is a tool for work - they are welcome to buy a Mac for their personal use at home." Overall, he explains, PCs provide the stabilization good enough for the business world, and that's good enough for him.

Nor is Apple the only company to be shut out. After investigating IBM's, Dell's, and Compaq's options, Kase inked a partnership with Hewlett Packard to provide everything from the switches and hubs to printers, PCs, and mainframes. Turns out, HP's "remote management" dialogue offered the magic phrase.

"Companies hire one technician for every 70 computers - we have one per 1,300. And while I love to don my technology golf shirt and go fix some PCs when I have the time, I don't have much time," Kase says. "We can only maintain this network if we monitor it all from the center and avoid trips for each call. HP had the best remote tool set in the industry." Overall, remote management strategy reduces staffing cost, notifies critical network devices' status in real time, leverages the installed technology's investment, and allows tight inventory and licensing management/control, he ticks off.

That breaks down to Web-based enterprise management wizardry through HP Open View software, which allows the operator to pinpoint a problem by clicking on a series of screens. And since Kase implemented a naming system based on location for each computer and accessory, he doesn't lose time and patience trying to find Zelda at Lakeside Elementary or Fred's Friend at Warren Central High School before fixing them.

"We can tell from headquarters which jack in this classroom hub is bad, but it's not self-healing," he points out. In this 1999-2000 school year, students from the career center's PC Networking and Repair course stand ready to earn certification status from HP that enables them to tinker with warranty parts and handle these identified repairs. (The students did install the network, and they can rebuild a desktop in four minutes flat.) Again, standardization makes such miracles possible.

Kase even enforces an approved equipment list in his quest to homogenize the township's technology direction. Computers, peripherals, software, printers - no detail is too small. Desktops are locked down to avoid adding unauthorized software and accessories; he rejected laptops as an official component because of their repair issues. "People drop them, the screens rip off, and at some point we basically run a home for broken toys.

"If you don't have these types of rules in place, the people's choices will just eat you alive," he continues. "That's how the district became so decentralized before I arrived."

The Learning Curve

Perhaps nothing illustrates the power of Warren's network in action like its Intranet, which houses the student accounting system. Previously a terminal-based system only secretaries and administrators accessed, now this capability is available to teachers, too. They can take attendance, submit discipline reports, even check to see if Johnny is allergic to bee stings - all through the browser.

Naturally each user must find a comfort level before this system works smoothly, however. Union contracts demand payment for teachers' time after hours, so training classes aren't mandated but highly encouraged. "We invest in their personal skills first, and that transfers to computer use in the classroom," Kase points out. "Our attitude is that e-mail is now part of your existence and the student attendance system will be your method of doing business, so you need to learn how to use them. If teachers had to pay for this training outside school, it would cost thousands of dollars, so essentially they're getting a free seat." Nor does the world stop or provide alternatives for non-conformists; principals send morning messages via e-mail to encourage teachers to touch the computer.

Each teacher receives a binder to fill with a common set of materials on Microsoft Word, Windows '95, Excel, and other software packages on which the full-time staff trainer holds classes during the work day, after hours, and on Saturdays. Computer coordinators - fellow teachers with a technology aptitude - appointed in each building bail out lost colleagues as well.

These coordinators, in fact, form the first line of defense in the help desk support Kase maintains. If the problem stumps the building-level expert (or this person is tied up teaching class), users may contact the two bodies operating the district's physical help desk via phone or the Intranet. This central site resolves the problem verbally and dispatches a technician or outside vendor if the situation requires tools to fix. Control here is so precise, Kase's team often wards off a barrage of "my e-mail is running slow today" comments by zeroing in on the situation and posting bulletins to that effect throughout the network. He also established a Network Status Hotline to pass this information to those who prefer telephone communication.

"We've gone through the usual growing pains," he laughs. "For instance, once users learn to attach files, they must do it every time and clog the system. It's part of the learning curve. But we want to maintain a high level of service because as teachers use these tools, they become dependent on them."

Other bumps in the road were attributable to the problems of fast growth. Once on the bandwagon, everyone in Warren Township was enthusiastic to expand the hardware without remembering the human support factor on the other side of that equation. Kase's team has grown from his lone cowboy approach to nine staffers less than 24 months later É and another PC technician position is on the way as the district doubles its computer inventory. Finding these qualified employees requires fortitude. "It's increasingly difficult to find people because I can't play the salary game. The corporate world can say, 'I'll give you a $10,000 bonus and double it next year,'" he admits.

And Warren Township prepared well financially for its technological revival. Kase began with "a large sum of money" he hedges from the capital projects fund, along with a telecommunications budget and other separate pots he could dip into. But even a good banker staggers at writing checks for $1.6 million in computer equipment one year, followed by the same amount the next. This year Kase expects to shell out $2.3 million for his technology plan. That's in part why the district leases its machines on three-year contracts, to avoid paying the piper in lump sums. (It also reinforces his desire to supply classrooms with the best technology every three years.)

And as Kase covertly eyes advances in videoconferencing and wireless LANs in the district's future, his goal remains to make Warren Township a district that acts as a "lighthouse of quality" for technology, lighting the way for others to follow.  

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