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When the British Columbia government announced a multi-million dollar 12-year contract with Fujitsu Consulting (Canada) Inc. last November to develop a new student records system, it was celebrated as a win for school districts.

However, the Saanich school district, which had been trying to build its own open source-based system, has been a thorn in the side of the project.  Forced in March to abandon its effort after spending $1.5 million, the district is now fighting with the province over allegations that Fujitsu was given a special exemption the board didn’t get.

The history is outlined by privacy and open government expert David Eaves and in news stories here and here from the Victoria Times Colonist.

In his blog Eaves raises the question of whether the government has been trying to sink the Saanich system to favour the new Fujitsu model.

Here’s the background: The province has had a Web-based student information system since 2005 used by teachers for holding grades and, attendance records of some 600,00 current and 450,ooo former students, and for teacher planning. That application – from a company called AAL and hosted by Fujitsu – “was basically approaching obsolescence,” a ministry of education official told me last December because of performance issues (according to Eaves, it kept crashing) and an unfriendly user interface.

But in addition to better performance the province also wanted new capabilities such as the ability to support distance learning courses, to allow teachers to create tailored learning plans for students, and that could more easily shift records as students moved to different schools.

Three companies made final bids for the new student information system, which went to a partnership between Fujitsu and Follett Corp., an Illinois maker of technology solutions for the education markt.  Now called MyEducationBC, the student information system was to start being implemented in April in some school boards.

Half the boards across the province will have to switch to the new system in the fall. Each board is responsible for its own integration.

Meanwhile Saanich was proceeding with its own student records system, apparently figuring it would be less expensive than the roughly $10 per full time student school boards have to pay to be linked to the provincial system. (The province matches that to make up the fee it pays to Fujitsu).

The problem began earlier this year when Saanich learned its system would have to integrate its openSchool information system with the B.C. Services Card, a single card to be used for accessing all provincial services. That would add $1.7 million to the $1.5 million it had already spent, so the school board gave up.

Earlier this month, however, the board said it obtained provincial documents showing Fujitsu got a five-year exemption last October from integrating with the services card. The board chair complained it had been misled.

According to the Times-Colonist, the education ministry said the exemption was because the services card was “not fully implemented” yet. Fujitsu will still have to integrate MyEducationBC with it.

Is it true that B.C. was out to torpedo the Saanich system to protect its investment in Fujitsu? The education ministry says it did talk to the board’s superintendent on the feasibility of its project. It didn’t say Saanich’s openSchool system had to use the services card when it is ready, only that integration with the card “could be another challenge.”

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