Security breach: Aging computer network threatens school safety
The district’s computer network — last updated seven years ago — is so outdated that a school lockdown might fail if initiated.
That was the grim footnote delivered at the end of the Board of Education’s presentation for capital improvement projects for the 2018-19 school year.
Dr. Robert Miller, the district’s director of technology and operations development, recommended the board fund the replacement of more than 200 wireless access points throughout the district, as well as servers at all six elementary schools and both middle schools.
Those pieces of hardware are paramount to keeping the district-wide network operational, Miller explained — something that’s critical to student safety, considering how many school security resources rely on the network.
“Without those core devices, any facility device that’s connected to the network would fail to work within the buildings,” Miller told the board. “Any security device that’s connected to the network would fail to work within the buildings.”
That includes everything from “video surveillance to door access to how these devices actually talk to and get authentication onto the network itself,” Miller said.
Vice Chairman Doug Silver asked whether the $475,700 in network and security upgrades should be given higher priority, as the project ranked fourth on the district’s list of seven capital projects that are planned for the 2018-19 school year.
“When I hear network failures, and I hear threats to the safety of our students and staff — you know, that’s our first responsibility,” Silver said.
“Every element of our operation is connected to the technology,” said Superintendent Karen Baldwin. “And, you know, first and foremost [our top priority] is safety and security.”
“And so, we can’t continue to defer this,” she added.
Miller assured the board he was comfortable listing the upgrades at a lower priority because the hardware most at risk of failure is the network switches. Those could replaced individually if one were to fail, without risking the whole network, Miller said.
Upgrading the wireless access points is projected to cost $162,800, he said, while replacing the servers at the elementary and middle schools would cost a total of $64,000. The funds would be taken out of the schools’ capital budget, which is separate from its operating budget.
Along with wireless network upgrades, the capital improvement item would also build a security vestibule inside the entrance at East Ridge Middle School. The room would isolate anyone trying to access the building, and is slated to cost $68,900.
The district would also install 47 networked surveillance cameras at all six elementary schools, and at “critical” security points in the high school. The additional cameras would cost around $75,000, Miller said.
The security costs include additional protective film for glass entryways and adjacent windows on all district buildings to prevent an intruder from smashing his or her way into a school. The cost is projected to be $105,000.
“It kind of reminds you of those brave teachers out in California,” said Silver, referring to a recent mass shooting in Rancho Tehama, where the intruder was kept out of the building by a school lockdown.
The bundled network and security upgrades are the second most expensive project slated for next year, according to Miller.
Replacing the running track at Tiger Hollow, listed at $500,000, is the most expensive project — and of the lowest priority — on the capital improvement plan.
The district’s capital costs are $1,547,521 for the seven major projects next year.
The district’s estimated capital improvement costs are $10,765,787 over the course of the next five years.
What comes first?
The replacement of a 30-year-old heating oil tank and asbestos abatement and retiling — both at Scotland Elementary — were given first and second priority, respectively.
Replacing the heating oil tank is “a must,” said Joe Morits, the district’s facilities manager. And delaying it any longer “is a major code violation with significant fines,” he told the board.
Morits projected the oil tank replacement to cost $100,750 and the asbestos abatement — in phase two of a four-year removal — to cost $121,900.
Heating and cooling
The third item on the list is upgrading the outdated building heating and cooling automation systems at Scotts Ridge Middle School and Ridgebury Elementary School, estimated to cost $97,538.
The heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) automated system would be upgraded from a proprietary software system to a Web-based platform, Morits said. That would allow HVAC technicians to remotely access the school’s heating and cooling controls, rather than driving to the schools to adjust the controls onsite.
It’s not the only cooling system causing the district trouble.
At the high school, a 300-ton cooling tower has corroded to the point of needing to be replaced. The project, sixth on the district’s priority list, is projected to cost $153,500.
The failure of the heating and cooling tower during the start of the school year could force a school closure, Baldwin added.
Morits said that while the base of the tower is in good condition, the top of the tower has deteriorated to the point where the whole tower could be lost. Harsh water at the high school has caused a great deal of corrosion, he said.
“We do treat the water — we have chemicals that we use for scale and for hardness,” Morits said. “But the water makeup is just vicious up there at the high school.”
Morits said if the tower failed, 60% of the high school would lose air conditioning.
The tower was installed back in 2002 as part of a package of improvements, Morits explained. At the time, two towers and two chillers were supposed to be installed, but the district opted to install only one of each, because of budget constraints. The corroding tower, in effect, gets twice the workload the system was expected to handle.
“This bad boy does a lot of work,” Morits said. “It was a major budget cut back in the day, so I’m told.”
The fifth item on the district’s capital improvement list is building a handicapped-accessible playground at Ridgebury. It would cost $98,133.
All the projects carry with them some operational or legal risks for the district, the facilities manager explained.
At Ridgebury, if a wheelchair-bound student registered at the school, the parents could hold the district liable for not accommodating the student’s needs, Baldwin said.
Likewise, the district would be on the hook for injuries caused by damage to the Tiger Hollow running track at RHS.
“We’ve had litigation there based on falls on the stairs,” said Morits, referring to the bleachers at Tiger Hollow that the district fixed before the 2016-17 school year.