Money the heart of the UC problem for schools

Getting Canadian public school boards to replace their aging PBX systems with a unified communications package can be a hard sell despite the advantages, says an official with a UC manufacturer.

While the benefits include the ability to better connect with parents and improve school safety, money is the heart of the problem, Vani Naidoo, manager of education solutions marketing at Ottawa’s Mitel Networks, told an IT conference in Toronto on Monday.

Three quarters of the budgets of most public school boards is eaten up with salaries, she said, leaving only 25 per cent for everything from books to communications systems.

Unfortunately, she said, Ottawa stays out of public school financing, whereas in the U.S., federal funding for such things as phone systems is available.

Meanwhile, the need here is critical, Naidoo suggested in an interview after her address. Many boards “have 30- and 40-year-old PBXs in place, and they’re dying,” she said.

As a result, Naidoo many boards rely on volunteers to phone parents when schools have to close for bad weather. Meanwhile, parents trying to contact teachers have to leave messages with a receptionist or school secretary, which may or may not be read. As for the receptionist, she is prevented from doing more productive tasks because she’s answering the phone.

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Because public boards focus their energies on things that will improve the cirriculum, Naidoo first tries to make a business case for unified communications. Such a system would have voicemail boxes for each staff member with a messaging system that bypasses a receptionist when possible. In addition, each classroom has its own IP phone, better than an intecom for getting messages about an emergency to supervisors.

A unified communications system could also be used to videoconference outside experts students can hear from to broaden their learning experience.

But, she added in the interview, “what I (also) try to say (to boards) is look beyond the numbers, because at the end of the day you’re putting in a basic framework and it can enable you to do other things” — for example, have a system that automatically calls parents whose children doesn’t show up for class. The system can be programmed by parents to call several phone numbers or e-mail addresses until there’s a response.

In her address, Naidoo said the savings can be proved. Creating a composite from Mitel case studies of three U.S. school boards she didn’t identify, a board made up of 12 schools with 3,400 students wanting to replace a Centrex phone system costing US$40,436 a year would ostensibly save a mere US$481 switching to an IP-based system on dollars alone. But if productivity savings from such “intangibles” as the ability of teachers to devote more time to teaching was factored in, the saving could be $70,631 a year, she said.

In the interview Naidoo said financially strapped boards should remember that they don’t have to do everything at once. After installing an IP-PBX at the board headquarters and linking it to a few schools, more can be added over time as long as there’s a migration strategy.

“Unfortunately,” she added, “education is not one of those sectors where you are able to see all these great new applications everyone’s talking about being implemented.”

Naidoo was speaking at IT360, a three-day conference promoting the value of information technology.