“We’ve been really busy…which is a little bit of an understatement,” Director of Technology and Communications, Dr. Karen Fildes told the New Fairfield Board of Education at their meeting on September 5. She went on to highlight the three complex areas of focus that she and her team have been working on: large portions of the infrastructure, servers that were completely replaced down to the wiring, and a new student information system, Power School. She praised her staff for their work spending all summer “ripping out the guts of the entire district, the town, and the library.”
Though the technological start to school was a bit bumpy, technology staff are working to quickly course correct. The server project was intertwined with the new infrastructure work which complicated things. While Dr. Fildes is happy to report that “All primary services are all now on 2019 hardware,” the switch prompted a domino-style series of unexpected issues. For example, the increased security parameters that came part and parcel with the new hardware, meant that there was a need for more complex passwords. Dr. Fildes also noted that they made some assumptions that required fleet-footed work at the school year’s start, saying that they were surprised by the fact that “90% of students wouldn’t know their passwords at the end of summer…They didn’t know how to authenticate those passwords.”
Dr. Fildes stressed that the schools are fully operational in the network and that there is a dramatic increase in speed, however, she said “I will not tell you that everything is finished.” They plan to move forward and continue to smooth out the kinks, “We have to fix things as we find them,” she explained, pointing to pop-up issues, such as printer problems in the Middle School. For students, they are tackling issues with rostering for partner programs. The online portions of curriculum for Pearson, National Geographic, and more need to be ironed out as soon as possible for students to be able access key components. Dr. Fildes explained that though this issue is rising in importance, it was critical that her staff first focus on connecting students to their medical information, the bus company, the Nutrikids lunch program, the school messenger system, and more. She also noted her staff, in conjunction with the Buildings and Grounds department is working on serious issues with wiring in the Annex.
The move to switch student information systems–the software that houses all student information from test scores and grades to contact information and medical data–began in January of this year, but the bulk of the migration was done this summer. Frankly, Dr. Fildes said, “The divorce from Infinite Campus didn’t go as smoothly as we’d hoped.” As one of the last schools using Infinite Campus in Connecticut, she didn’t expect that there would be issues receiving the data from the company but said “They literally waited until the last day to provide us the last round of data.”
There are no historical grades in the system at this point, as the focus was on creating the student schedules, especially the complex scheduling that occurs at the high school. Stephanie Romano-Cheung’s counseling team “did an amazing job,” Dr. Fildes said, as the group straddled programs and began their scheduling in Infinite Campus, then finalized in Power School. Similarly, Dr. Fildes pointed out that Middle School Principal Christine Baldelli handled the bulk of issues that came up with Middle School scheduling.
The technology department is taking a step-by-step approach to adding features to the system. As of now, the teachers are entering attendance into Power School. They will have a lot more training between now and the end of term to master grade entry. Also, the school messenger feature is live and will be the primary source of communication from the school to the families.
Power School Parent Portal: The parent portal in Power School was supposed to open last week but is being held in limbo. The Infinite Campus data was not as clean as Dr. Fildes hoped and she and her team had to make logical assumptions regarding the data. In light of that, they believe that it is important to wait to open the portal until verification forms return from parents and are entered into Power School. “We found that a lot of the reasons why we were having problems with conversion was that the data in Infinite Campus wasn’t clean,” Dr. Fildes said. Given that there with problems with the legacy data, she has decided to tighten the permissions for entering information and has created a data fidelity team. The data fidelity team now has a large amount of updated forms that require entry. Once the system is updated, Dr. Fildes plans to open the portal for parents. A flurry of information will go out to parents once the portal is open, with sections of the portal opening in due time. “The nice thing about Power School is that it is very user friendly for parents,” she said.
Building Project Update: In a brief buildings project update, Dr. Richard Sanzo, Director of Finance and Operations, noted that the referendum bonding question language has been set. They will read:
1) Shall the $84,220,000 appropriation and bond authorization, of which it is expected that an estimated $22,570,000 shall be reimbursed by the State of Connecticut, for the planning, design, construction, renovation, demolition, equipping and furnishing of the New Fairfield High School be approved?
2) Shall the $29,190,000 appropriation and bond authorization, of which it is expected that an estimated $10,830,000 shall be reimbursed by the State of Connecticut, for the planning, design, construction, renovation, demolition, equipping and furnishing of the Consolidated Early Learning Academy and Meeting House Hill School be approved?
He noted that these amounts, if approved, will reflect the maximum amount allowed that the district could spend. Given the large number of solicitation emails he receives, he expects that there will be approximately 12 to 15 architecture firms bidding for the project. The high level of competition would likely work in the town’s favor.
In addition to a series of connections with community members at town events and school open houses, the Board of Education will hold a Monday, Sept. 16, public hearing at 7pm in the high school auditorium. Attendees should expect a presentation for the first hour, with a question and answer period to follow. There will be a special Board of Selectman meeting to address the referendum on Sept. 17, a special town meeting to set the referendum date on Sept. 26, and the referendum is expected to occur on Saturday, Oct. 5.
Board Approvals: In a series of approvals, the BOE accepted donations from the Derx Foundation to fund the Middle School’s Breakfast Club and extracurricular newspaper club. They also approved a Comprehensive Health textbook for the high school. Though no presentation or discussion was held at the Board of Education meeting, Board member Dominic Cipollone noted that at the Curriculum Subcommittee meeting there was a thorough presentation. He explained that the textbook is current and covers vaping and opioid issues, as well as good health behaviors. The board also voted to approve Superintendent Dr. Pat Cosentino’s goals and priorities for 2019-2020. They will further develop the points within the goals at the next Board of Education meeting.
Subcommittee News: In subcommittee news, the Communications/Community Outreach group is discussing disbanding. When it was formed a few years ago, in the height of public outcry over a variety of issues within the schools, there was an active attendance. Now, it has steeply fallen off. At their latest meeting, which had no outside attendees, Dr. Sanzo gave the board members in attendance an update on some bus scheduling issues that had come to their light in the switch from 20 to 19 bus routes. They are working to address any issues and have made some changes based on safety concerns. The district will be getting 18 or 19 new buses in October; they will be equipped with GPS tracking for parents to access.
Board member Rick Regan reported that the School Start Time Committee met recently and viewed a student presentation. Mr. Regan has observed that overall, many students are supportive of the change. He went on to say that the possibility of a time change in the future depends on a combined parking lot for the Middle and High School. If the referendum vote is favorable to the new buildings, the group will likely wait to meet again until the spring of 2022.
Acting as liaison to the town’s Board of Finance, Mr. Ed Sbordone explained that a budget surplus from last year will be slated to offset the cost of new security enhancements and Middle School improvements. The BOF plan to discuss this at their September 18 meeting. As an aside from a separate Fields Committee meeting, he also mentioned that there will be a need to increase the field fees at some point, as the stadium turf will need to be replaced in 2023 to the tune of $300K.
Superintendent’s Report: In her Superintendent’s Report, Dr. Cosentino said that is has been a great beginning of the school year. “There are always little bumps the first couple of days, but things are being taken care of,” she said. She explained that the school’s annual emergency drill week was positive, “I think it’s been going pretty well…It hasn’t rained, so that’s always good.” She also mentioned that the Leadership Cadre group that she started last year to foster leadership among nominated school staff members will be starting soon.
Public Comments: In public comments, resident Jim Mellett asked about the school using demographic experts to get accurate projections for future school enrollment. He was assured that the school does consult with those professionals. He also stressed the importance of teaching about slavery in the schools and confronting how deeply slavery’s roots were, and still are, embedded in the United States. Resident John McCartney praised the BOE, saying that they “put the kids and the school first.”
A special BOE Public Hearing on the proposed buildings projects will be held on Mon., Sept. 16, 7pm, NFHS Auditorium. The next regular BOE meeting will be held on Thurs., Sept. 19, 7pm.
By Sarah Opdahl