Blount school board hears apology

All Tennessee Department of Education commissioner Tom Webb could do was apologize and pledge to improve a faulty online education network the county is currently using.

Blount County School Board members on Oct. 2 heard his comments, but asked why the school system couldn’t just switch to their own system.

Webb apologized to the board for the faulty online education network the county uses. The Star Student Information System is constructed for use of educators and administrators to access information about students. This information includes grades, disciplinary actions and attendance. Parents can view these records from home.

Some of the problems consistent with the system include constant crashes and inability to log onto the system for parents and teachers. “It’s not perfect. Technology is always going to have problems,” Webb said.

Webb added that every time he and his staff fix something, something else seems to break.

Even with the problems, the commissioner told the board that the State Department of Education had renewed the five-year contract to keep Star Student. Board member Mike Treadway was not sure if that was the right path to follow. “If the system was not functioning properly since its inception, which has been the case here in Blount County, why was it renewed for five years,” he said.

Webb said that it would have cost more money to seek out another system “We’ve looked at the cost to go somewhere else, (but) it was not cost effective to cancel the contracts and go to other vendors,” Webb said. “We thought it was the only option we had at the time.”

Treadway said prior to Star Student, Blount County had a similar system that worked much better. “It seems like from that particular point (changing to Star Student), we have taken steps backwards, and that is frustrating as a parent,” he said. “I’ve heard from teachers on a daily basis about their frustrations about being not able to input grades.”

Webb said he could not give the board an official timeline on when Star Student would perform optimally. Webb said he is having constant meetings with his staff and hopes to have some improvement by the New Year but he could not promise full potential.

The board could consider changing to a system of their own as Knox County has, but Webb discouraged the idea. Director of Schools Alvin Hord agreed saying the board should not start spending money when it does not have to.

On another matter, school board members discussed problems with heating, ventilating and air conditioning units at Carpenters Middle School. The board heard from Director of Facilities Brian Bell who said Carpenters Middle School has a geothermal heating and cooling system that was constructed to be more energy efficient. However, Carpenters Middle School was designed for a regular rooftop heating and cooling system, Bell said. The problems now are high noise levels from the units inside the classrooms, leaking of the wells outside and units that are failing years before they are supposed to, Bell said.

Bell came to the board asking for a solution on a system that is no longer under warranty. He brought with him maintenance crew for Blount County schools and the solutions they thought up only dealt with half of the problems. Two other schools also work on the geothermal systems and they are Mary Blount Elementary School and Eagleton Middle School. The systems there do not have any problems.

The board took no action, but member Don McNelly said that they should go after the ones who installed the system. “It does not make any sense to have wells that are leaking.” McNelly said. “I just don’t think it is right.”

Board member Rob Webb agreed. “I do not think we should take this as a school board,” he said. “We should go after the people.”

Treadway said that the problem needed to be addressed first. The board will have to pay for replacements and then go after the company that did the poor constructions, he said.

A motion was approved to assess the other geothermal units, seek out answers from engineers on how to fix the problems at the school, and request the costs be paid for with a bond.

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