Teacher Martha Snider was at Christa McAulliffe Middle School working on Lodi Unified School District’s computer system one Friday morning when a power glitch at the district administrative office disrupted the data.
The network server had gone down. Again.
Dale Munsch’s cell phone stuffed in his pocket alerted him to the issue and repairs began almost immediately. As the director of technology services, he is, after all, the first line of defense in getting the district’s computer system back up and running as quickly as possible before precious data is lost.
“We’ve made this the central hub, so we’ve got to keep it up and running,” Munsch said.
The district’s computer servers are housed behind locked doors in a 28-by-16-foot temperature-controlled room at the back of the three-story administration office. It is so cool and sterile, one might think they’re in a hospital. Thick orange, blue and pink lines come from the ceiling and plug into mini-server connections. Blinking lights show which computers are running.
Not only do the servers store valuable student information such as grades, class schedules and test scores, the system is basically a mini-desktop for anyone using programs such as Microsoft Word and Excel daily.
“They may have power at their desk, but if the system is down they don’t have those programs,” said Edith Holbert, the district’s network and systems supervisor, who works closely with Munsch.
The servers also provide email services for most of the district’s employees, runs the entire financial system from budgeting to payroll, runs constant filtering for students accessing the Internet, serves as the library book and textbook check-in/check-out system, provides trip routing for the district’s buses and runs the lunchroom program in which students swipe their cards.
The department is even testing new software that will allow school cafeteria workers to test food temperatures.
If the district decides to operate a virtual learning center, additional applications will be loaded onto the computer system.
“It just seems every day there’s something we want to provide,” Munsch said. “It’s what we need to do.”
The district’s servers also serve as portals for students and parents to check grades from home, and teachers to have remote access to the same information.
“Although we’re not open 24 hours a day, there’s the expectation that we provide access,” Munsch said. “More and more is being driven by the Web.”
Keeping up with technology
Lodi Unified’s is likely the largest computer system in the area. San Joaquin County might possibly be the only one larger, according to Holbert.
While the administration office on East Vine Street has lost power only three times this school year, even a 30-second power outage can cost the district hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost data, according to Assistant Superintendent Art Hand.
“In the past, we have had entire servers crash,” he said.
Former Tokay High School teacher Jeff Johnston, who is serving as the teachers’ union president, said that can create chaos.
That’s the reason Hand brought a request for a backup generator before the board; a data protection investment, so to say. It was unanimously approved earlier this month.
A contract not to exceed $315,000 will install a backup generator to allow an unlimited power supply should the electricity go out again. It should be installed by the beginning of next school year, if not sooner in June, Munsch said.
Trustees have also approved moving forward with replacing underground Internet lines that stretch for miles to Lockeford and Clements.
Some of the district’s rural schools receive their Internet connection through T1 lines that come from an AT&T office in Stockton, through the district office and are split to the respective sites.
On Feb. 25, a squirrel had wriggled its way into a transformer near the East Vine Street site and caused a brief power outage. But the damage was done as data transmission glitches trickled down to the school sites miles away.
Within minutes, technology staff members were working to get computers back online and repair electronic information. Some worked over the weekend and even the following Monday, according to Hand.
In all, it took three days and 10 technicians to resolve all of the issues caused by the 30-second power outage, Munsch said.
That includes getting all of the servers up and running, and fixing those that didn’t power back up because their power sources failed completely or devices that were ruined because of their age.
Some of the computer-related equipment the district is using is as old as 10 years, according to Munsch, and sometimes can’t be saved.
Because technology is always changing, most of the system’s components are three to five years old.
Munsch, who is also alerted 24 hours a day, seven days a week, said if the server room’s air conditioning shuts off, the room can quickly go from cool to 90 degrees.
“We forget how much we actually do on the computer,” Munsch said of the district system’s need to remain reliable.
District’s need grows
As the district has grown, so has its technology needs.
Older servers are still housed upstairs where the original system became too heavy and additions had to be moved to the current location. In the upstairs office, the outdated servers are flanked by desks where employees monitor the 11,000-plus computer-related devices running every day at school sites and in the administrative office.
Four employees have access to a screen that shows the district’s approximately 50 sites. If the illuminated blue line turns red, something is disconnected.
“You can see it easily,” Holbert said, adding that chances are either she or Munsch have already been notified by cell phone of a problem by the time the colors change on the screen.
Another open computer window shows a site’s bandwidth utilization, or how much information is flowing across the system.
In total, 24 computer technicians take phone calls from district sites and can usually troubleshoot any issues remotely. Occasionally, they may need to visit a site.
Including support services, the technology department is comprised of three divisions. The other two include operations, which oversees student and financial data, and network systems. Those technicians handle everything from a jack in the wall to installing Internet services.
Both Holbert and Munsch have been working for the district for 13 years; they started within two weeks of each other.
Holbert formerly worked as a system analyst at Blue Shield, while Munsch’s technology background began at a local winery and later the banking industry.
In the end, Holbert admits what they do is a bit of a thankless job. “I tell my staff, ‘When we are having a bad day at the office, everyone knows about it.’”
Contact reporter Jennifer Bonnett at firstname.lastname@example.org.