HISD's Computer System Needs Overhaul, Big Bucks

Houston ISD's computer systems need an overhaul, unity and a service desk that deals with really urgent matters instead of spending a lot of its time replacing lost passwords for district personnel. IT employees also need to think a lot more about the needs of students.

That's just a few of the points made by the district's new Chief Technology Information Officer Arnold Viramontes, who was hired away from the Dallas ISD about a month ago, in a workshop presentation to the HISD board of trustees this morning.

Last December, when Houston ISD announced that its computer system had been broken into, Superintendent Terry Grier estimated it would take $10-$15 million to fix.

But first, the district brought in a team of evaluators from the Council of Great City Schools. Over a four-day period, the nine-person team interviewed more than 80 district personnel including principals and reviewed documents. One of those peer reviewers was Viramontes.

One of the first recommendations the review group of educators made was to change the hierarchy, recognize the importance of IT and move whoever was in charge of the department to a direct report to the superintendent.

"That, of course, has been fixed," Viramontes said, referring to himself.

He said they were several interviews along before one of the interviewees mentioned anything about the children attending HISD and their technology needs. He said part of the overhaul will be to readjust some thinking to ensure a focus on students.

The Houston ISD's Information Technology system "is not broken," but will require millions of dollars and time to correct, Viramontes said. He didn't give any estimation of what it will cost for HISD, but said a complete overhaul of the Dallas system, now $11 million along, was estimated to be going to cost $18 million.

What was done immediately following the hack was a "band-aid upon a band-aid" approach to increase security and more lasting measures are called for, Viramontes said. "We are not out of the woods yet," he warned.

Many of the points made during his presentation are not new news. Thanks to decentralization, HISD 's computer systems are disjointed and communication is poor. Basic maintenance was not kept up and the system itself is older, requiring more care, he said.

A comparison of HISD to peer districts shows the district spends $183.38 per student for HISD while the Council of the Great City Schools' median is $159.40.

The HISD service desk "first call resolutions" rate is 78 percent, compared to a CGCS median of 50 percent -- which at first looks like good news except when it's discovered that "Password resets and basic troubleshooting completely consumes that service desk," Viramontes said.

At the same time, HISD has a high staffing cost per service desk ticket of $37.82 compared to a CGCS median of $15.74. Viramontes said they will be trying to develop more of a self-service approach to the simplest needs.

Next up: How cash-strapped HISD is going to find the money to pay for the renovation of its system, if applying for grants doesn't work out.

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