Local firm to waive its fees for student information system

By Alyson E. Raletz

A south county company owned by an Oakville Elementary School parent is waiving $342,603 in fees so the Mehlville School District can use a new student information system.

In return, the district has agreed to serve as a showcase district, also referred to as a Beta test site for the new software, for three years beginning this fall.

Board members voted 5-0 July 22 to participate in a three-year commitment with Oakville-based School Information Systems, 116 Cliff Cave Road, to obtain new software to manage student records. Board member Rita Diekemper abstained from the motion because of a business relationship and board member Tom Correnti was absent.

The district’s current system used to manage student records, referred to as the AS400, is 25 years old and in desperate need of being replaced, district administrators said.

The new system will manage student attendance, grading, discipline, medical and other records. The system also eventually will allow parents the ability to access their children’s records via the Internet. SIS has agreed to waive $252,173 in fees associated with student data management software modules, but the district will have to pay an annual maintenance fee of $51,424 under a board-approved letter of agreement.

SIS also will waive $50,000 in costs related to modules for financial accounting and payroll software for the district, but Mehlville is required to pay an annual $10,000 in maintenance fees, bringing annual maintenance fees to $61,424. Under the agreement, SIS will absorb software implementation costs in the amount of $40,430, but the district will have to pay $14,000 for training. SIS will bill the district on a monthly basis this year for the $14,000 in training fees, while the first year’s $61,424 in maintenance fees are due upon involvement with the program.

The district virtually has unlimited project management and consulting services until Sept. 30, but a $105-per-hour rate will be charged for any services after that date.

In exchange for the fee waivers, the district has agreed, as a showcase district, to respond to telephone referrals from other school districts, permit other school districts to visit Mehlville and monitor the application of SIS software no more than 24 times a year, participate in product development and working sessions, and let SIS staff visit Mehlville for test-product evaluation.

SIS President and Chief Executive Officer Nick Botonis, who has four children who attend Oakville Elementary, began SIS 22 years ago in the city and moved the company to Oakville 13 years ago. The company now has 22 employees and specializes in K-12 student record management. Nearly 50 percent, 220, of the school districts in Missouri use SIS software products, including Lindbergh, Affton, Bayless, Webster Groves and Valley Park.

Waiving $342,603 in fees for a single school district is unprecedented for SIS, Botonis told the Call, but nearly all SIS employees are connected to Mehlville in some way.

“We felt like we wanted to do something for the district as a community service,” Botonis said. “We did tell them a year ago if they decide to select our software, we would waive the sales fee, which we have never done before … They’re going through financial problems with budget cuts and construction right now. This was just one way to do something for the community.”

Less than 5 percent of Missouri school districts still use a system similar to Mehlville’s current internal AS400 system, according to Botonis. The AS400 is a mini-frame computer, which is good at centralized data processing, he said, but has become dated and has been phased out by many school districts. Since the state has issued new curriculum objectives and No Child Left Behind Act requirements are becoming increasingly more important in the classroom, he said SIS has begun to redevelop its curriculum software.

Much of that software will be modeled off Mehlville because of the district’s success with the Missouri School Improvement Program, he said. Mehlville in 2003 earned a perfect score — all 100 points — in its MSIP evaluation based on 2003 Missouri Assessment Program tests.

“Mehlville did well on the MSIP and they did it manually through a manual system,” he said. “It’s worth looking at what they did on paper and we will model the new system after that … What we’ve developed is perfect for Mehlville … The district is not only helping us with what we need, but, in turn, they’re getting a system without having to pay custom charges.”

This is just one of the reasons Connie Hurst-Bayless, assistant superintendent of curriculum/staff development, touted SIS during the board’s July 22 session. Hurst-Bayless has worked with SIS software before and said no dollar amount could quantify the value Mehlville would receive by using curriculum software especially made for the district.

But board Vice President Matt Chellis questioned the proposal, asking how much money the district spent on annual maintenance for the current AS400 system.

Superintendent Tim Ricker said the current system requires no maintenance costs, noting that SIS fees already have “been built into the budget. Randy (Charles) built this dollar figure into the budget knowing that this could be a possibility.”

Charles is the school district’s assistant superintendent of finance and chief financial officer.

Chellis is concerned about the district’s position after the three-year period ends and certain fees no longer are waived.

“At that point it becomes open-ended. We will have scrapped our AS400 system. I’m sure that we probably need to do that and it probably is outdated and it probably needs to be replaced,” he said. “But we own that system and we won’t own this system. And we’ll be at their mercy three years from now — not owning a system, not having a system and not knowing what we’re going to pay on an ongoing basis. And we will have a definite need that will have to be fulfilled. What happens if three years from now a future board, which we can’t bind, is put into a difficult situation on pricing?”

The AS400 system is not functional, Ricker responded, and purchasing a new system could cost the district up to $1 million, which the district does not have.

“We could continue along with what we have, but we don’t think that meets our needs,” he said. “Annually we’ll be evaluating our relationship with SIS … If things aren’t working out right — what we’re basically doing is pushing off that million-dollar decision for three years.”

The district could walk away from the system at the end of the three years, he said, but the district would need the ability to purchase or lease another system.

The district always will have the AS400 to “fall back on,” Ricker said, if the district finds itself in that situation.

“But not really though,” Chellis said. “Because our records will no longer line up with the AS400.”

“You’re exactly right,” Ricker said.

But the district will have options and could pursue other companies for a different system, according to Ricker, who said, “If the worst-case scenario happened … our system didn’t work, our relationship was so bad — I think one of the benefits, as I stated before, the situation is this is a parent … who owns a company in our community, has a vested interest in our community. I’m not going to say that that won’t happen, but I would think that we would be able to work through that kind of a situation.”

No other school district is a showcase school district, Ricker emphasized.