It's not like people did not see this coming...but somehow, this issue recently dropped like a bomb on the residents of Austin Texas.
And stay with me here...this will get to the subject matter this blog works toward.
In the face of a 50 million + dollar budget shortfall, The Austin Independent School District Superintendent is recommending the layoff of 1017 teachers and varied staff.
This, according to the Superintendent, would free up 53 million dollars.
That's the problem when you have bean counters as your advisors. As long as the dollar columns line up, the easiest solution should be the one deployed. As long as the money is right, then the ends justify the means...and the added bodies to the unemployment lines.
I'm not saying that the Superintendent took this route...but if it looks like a duck...until there is clarification, then all theories are pliable.
First off, let's keep the politics out of this. I'm not going to let this degrade into a Republicans vs Democrats thing.
It runs deeper than that. Much deeper.
This is a matter of short-sighted planning and ignorance on all sides.
I am a political layman. I despise politics and all the infighting and ego that comes with it. Naive? Yes. I am naive when placed in the political arena. But there are times when common sense should wield sharp elbows and knock unnecessary players out of that space.
From the comments - "...While you may detest politics, they are still very much present in the equation...Do they once again raise property taxes and evoke the ire of every voter in that district or do they lay off a thousand employees whos stories will be forgotten in two weeks?" -
Anonymous retired School District employee.
In the first place, I would suggest that AISD live within their means. The AISD headquarters now resides on a 30 million dollar piece of prime real estate on 6th Street. Real estate that would be purchased quickly by commercial developers. As of now, many Austin students attend classes in "temporary" buildings...prefabricated and aging "portable" buildings that should shame the administration of this school district.
My daughter, thankfully, is graduating high school this year. I have personally attended parent-student meetings in these buildings. Many of the ceilings are bowed, the doors have to be slammed in order to close and they are grossly inefficient from a heating and cooling standpoint.
I have an idea...to save money, why doesn't AISD move their headquarters into a series of these "portable" buildings...in say, oh I don't know...East Austin? The real estate costs there are low and they could save millions by doing so. Sure, it would take a while to realize their savings...
While we're on the subject of planning ahead to save money...
In 2006, I started a personal campaign to find out what AISD was spending in software. Since I am a Free Software (Open Source) guy, it seemed to me that adopting an Open Source solution could at least help with lowering the overall operating costs.
Cue up the crickets chirping and lonely-blowing-wind sound effects.
After badgering enough people, by 2008, I finally got through to someone who was able to give me the answer and she would be happy to give me access to that information.
For a $2000.00 administration fee.
So I attended various PTSA (Parent Teacher Student Association) meetings and presented my ideas when I could. There was a large amount of support within those meetings of at least exploring the idea, but that's where it died.
Filing for this data under the Freedom of Information Act of 1974 was impotent. It seems our laws, the way they are currently written, gives the corporates protection...
Even if federal law says differently.
However, a seemingly disconnected event in 2008 was able to dislodge some of this information. Maybe not as much as I wanted, but enough to sharpen the pencil and do a bit of cipherin'.
Many will remember the row that ensued after an AISD teacher admonished one of our HeliOS kids and myself for him bringing a laptop and Linux disks into her classroom.
And no...no direct citation is needed. I'm not going to link-bait my own story. However, this not only went viral in hours, many online and dead tree newspapers picked it up as well.
It is within one of those that we can discern some important figures.
The AISD IT Director at that time defended their IT structure by saying that 1/3 of their computers ran software other than Windows.
"...and while the district uses Windows on 24,000 of its 36,000 computers, it uses Linux for many of its servers and open-source applications, such as Open Office, whenever possible."
OK, great...Linux is obviously the superior choice for server deployments, but if we were to dig deeper into that statement, how many of the OS choices are Linux? I am guessing that the majority of them run Windows with some Open Source solutions installed therein. The article does mention the use of Mac computers as well. Oh, and those aren't expensive...
But Linux desktops?
I am guessing about 27...maybe....but I am an optimist.
"When asked about the possibility of dumping Windows in favor of Linux, AISD technology director Gray Salada said that in terms of a cost-benefit analysis, it simply isn't worth it. Windows comes preinstalled on most computers, he said, so there is little savings to be realized from removing it and incurring the costs of retraining teachers and the district's 12 engineers, who are already proficient in Windows, to support Linux."
And therein lies the problem within the Austin Independent School District.
Don't think long-term...and for Heaven's sake, don't extend the life of a good computer. Buy new ones at all costs.
"Windows comes preinstalled on most computers..."
And if these machines are re-deployed, are they being upgraded to a newer Windows OS at taxpayer expense?
From The comments - "Ken, the administration listens to whatever compu-babble the head IT guy spews out. They will pay any amount of money necessary to keep things working and if the head guy says we need to spend X amount of dollars on MS licensing, then we spend it. He is never questioned nor does anyone care. As long as things are running smoothly on the surface, they will spend the money he says needs to be spent as long as they don't have to deal with it."
- Anonymous currently employed IT specialist within a Texas school district
After all, I am simply a lowly taxpayer with a child in their system. What right do I have to know as to how they are spending my money?
Time and time again, Linux and Free Software have provided The Enterprise, Governments and individuals amazing cost savings over the long term.
A recent conversation with Amazon tech support concerning our store account revealed that most of the desktops used at that call center ran Suse Linux. They made the switch a couple of years ago. Amazon is thinking long-term.
But AISD isn't thinking long-term.
24K of those computers are running Windows. Even at their licensing costs of maybe $50.00 per machine, how much money could they save?
The math is simple. $1,200.000.00
That isn't taking into consideration the cost for support software like anti virus applications.
How many teacher's positions could be saved by that alone?
Yeah, yeah...cost of training, cost of adaptation...
If this had been done in 2006, would it have made a difference today?
I am thinking so. Just ask those in various Indiana School Districts.
"We have a million kids in the state of Indiana," he continued. "If we were to pay $100 for software on each machine, each year, that’s $100 million for software. That’s well beyond our ability. That’s why open source is so attractive. We can cut those costs down to $5 [on each computer] per year.".
So while AISD accountants may consider these savings a "drop in the bucket", they don't realize that after a few years, those drops add up to a quantitative amount.
That doesn't matter right now...it appears they're in panic mode, running in circles with their hands flailing in the air.
They'll lay off or fire 1000+ teachers and staff members to get this monetary monkey off their backs....for now.
I'm guessing that in 5 years, we will be revisiting this crisis.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
My organization has deployed over 1200 Linux-powered computers to disadvantaged Austin students since 2005. I don't want to hear how "Linux doesn't work". It works fine and has proven to be superior in both performance and security. Sure we use some MS-only software via Crossover, but that's another advantage of Linux. We can and we do so without the inherent cost or peril of a native windows operating system.
Look, I'm not suggesting that this should happen overnight, nor am I silly enough to think that Linux on the desktop would solve all their woes. What I am saying is that if the State of Indiana can do this, then it's not out of the realm of possibility for AISD to do this....at least do a feasibility study. Look for vendors that offer Linux on the desktop.
There is the matter of critical Windows-only software...yes I know, but I also know that there are other such Free Software solutions such as Moodle. There are hundreds of Open Source software solutions that meet or exceed their Windows counterparts. The people making the IT decisions simply have to have the will to look into it.
Of that, I am not hopeful.
From the comments - "I am a recently retired teacher from AISD. You might want to ask them what they pay in licensing costs for their Blackboard software."
Anonymous retired AISD teacher
Many of the financial injuries that the Austin Independent School District suffer are self-inflicted. Mind the pennies and the dollars will take care of themselves.