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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Idaho school officials knock new data system

State schools Supt. Tom Luna addresses the Idaho Legislature's joint budget committee on Wednesday, responding to criticisms of the state's new student data system. (Betsy Russell)
NAMPA, Idaho – Idaho’s new multimillion-dollar student data system is causing giant headaches at school districts around the state and local school officials say it isn’t working. State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna said he’s working to address the concerns, and said some aren’t valid. “This is the first year ISEE has been operational,” Luna told the Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, which is holding its interim meeting this week. “We are the last state in the nation to deploy a statewide longitudinal data system, but we have made progress quickly. This is the most accurate data we have ever had.” Tom Taggart, president-elect of the Idaho Association of School Business Officials and director of business and operations for the Lakeland School District, told the lawmakers, “We want to look forward in what we can do to make this work, without being too negative, but I think part of our message is a dose of reality as to what’s going on at the school level. … We’re the nuts and bolts people who are in the business offices in the schools. We like it when things work, and when they don’t work we like to find a way to fix them.” The Idaho System for Education Excellence, which tracks students, test scores, funding and more, was roundly panned in surveys of the members of the Taggart’s association and the Idaho Association of School Administrators. The business managers survey found that only 1 percent rated the state Department of Education’s overall job implementing the project positively, while 30.3 percent were neutral and 68.7 percent rated it negatively. Asked if their school district “fully understands the reasons for, and uses of, ISEE,” 37.8 percent of the business managers said yes, while 62.2 percent said no. Among the school administrators, 91.2 percent said the project has added “a great deal of additional work” for personnel in their school districts. The new data system is running under initial budget estimates, according to the legislative budget office; since 2009, the state has appropriated $8.64 million for development including a $5.9 million federal grant, and $1.09 million for maintenance and operations. Original estimates were that the system would cost $11.1 million to develop plus $1.8 million a year to operate. Taggart said school districts haven’t been given adequate resources to start up the new system, which comes as budgets have been cut. Trying to get it working has placed a “huge burden” on school district staffs, he said. “They are spending hundreds and hundreds of hours. … A lot of time it’s like whack-a-mole: You solve this problem and three more pop up over here you have to deal with.” As a result, he said, “I’m not sure anyone can say exactly how many units are being funded this year, how many teachers are being funded. … Normally at this time, we’d have that information.” That’s created uncertainty in setting district budgets, he said. “There’s great frustration out there.” Luna said any problems stem from districts not inputting needed information, and he said once the inputting is automated, it will work more smoothly. He said his office has heard the concerns, and, “We are taking steps to address them.” Among them: Luna said he’s launching a third-party audit of the data collection to verify its accuracy, and has asked school districts to volunteer for similar audits from their end; a half-dozen have now volunteered, including Lakeland. The Legislature’s joint budget committee will review the situation again at its next meeting in the fall, the committee’s co-chairs said. Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, the joint committee’s Senate vice-chair, said she hopes Taggart and Luna will listen to each other. “They both expressed a desire to make it work,” she said. She said the new system is another example of the state requiring school districts to do new things but not providing adequate funding. “There are good reasons to have a system like that,” Keough said. “Now we need to make sure that it works.” Taggart asked to “slow down” the process so bugs can be worked out, but Luna said that’s not an option, under strings tied to the $300 million in federal stimulus funds Idaho’s accepted in the last few years. “We lost that option when we took the money from the feds – we have a Sept. 30, 2011 deadline,” Luna said. “It’s time to meet those commitments.”