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Saanich district still hopeful about custom student data system's future

The Saanich School District says there's still a good chance its custom-made student data system could be used in British Columbia schools, despite anticipated additional costs in the millions required to make it compatible with provincial standards.

Earlier this month the district's board announced the system, on schedule to roll out this fall, would be shelved in the face of surprise additional costs in the "millions" to make the system compatible with the new BC Services Card.

In an Tyee article published March 17, openStudent project manager Tim Agnew said while the district was aware of the requirement to be compatible with the card, government's Request For Proposals for a new data system, issued December 2012, did not detail the technical specifications the system would have to meet.

With an anticipated budget of over $3 million for the entire system, the board said in a press release issued March 6 that it could not risk spending millions more, and shelved the project. At the time The Tyee article was published, neither the board nor superintendent Nancy McDonald were available for comment as the district was on spring break.

B.C.'s Education Ministry said it was up to the district to determine how much integration of openStudent with the BC Service Card would cost. But in an interview yesterday, McDonald said it was the ministry who said it would cost the district "millions" of dollars, although it wasn't specific about how many millions.

"Maybe it's not $10 million, it's $5 million, or it's not $5 million, it's $2 million, I don't know," she said. "We just can't be in a place of not knowing what that is going to be. And I'm not even sure if the government knows how much it will cost."

Agnew said he couldn't see why the change should cost millions, and has requested additional information from the ministry. McDonald says she doesn't disagree with Agnew's analysis, but said the financial risk is too great to take on alone. That's why the district is actively seeking a financial partner to help finish openStudent, and if it finds one in time the district may still choose openStudent over the government-purchased MyEducation BC data system.

"If we can't, then we may be in a position to go with [MyEducation BC], and that would be disappointing for us, because we believe that our system is better and more flexible and more relevant to B.C.," she said, adding a partner would need to be found in the next few weeks to make openStudent useable by fall.

MyEducation BC is also known as Aspen, a student-data system used in 14 American states and the United Kingdom. It is being delivered in Canada through a partnership between Fujitsu Consulting (Canada) Inc. and Follet, and will cost the ministry $20 per full-time equivalent student -- or $9.4 million -- to run each year for up to 12 years; 51 of B.C.'s 60 school districts have already signed up to use the system, which will replace the current BCeSIS data system in two waves starting this year.

But McDonald said there are a number of districts that have signed memorandums of understanding to use MyEducation BC that are still interested in using openStudent if it's ready before MyEducation BC comes to their district. The anticipated cost for districts to use openStudent is $3 to $7 per full-time equivalent student.

Saanich has received a number of inquiries about openStudent from educational jurisdictions outside of B.C. and Canada, so even if openStudent can't be used in the province, it hopes to be able to recoup some or all of its costs by selling it outside the province.

"Never say never. It may be possible for us, and it may just mean that we won't have any relationship with B.C., but we will have [one outside] B.C.," she said.

Katie Hyslop reports on education and youth issues. Follow her on Twitter.

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