Audit reveals costs of technology

IT WAS A SWEET, classic photo in last week’s edition, similar to countless others we publish gladly. The Hudson Rotary was honoring two students, acknowledging their achievements with a gift of a dictionary… a printed dictionary.

What’s wrong with that? Absolutely nothing. Rotary is an exceptionally generous and public spirited organization, and this county is a better place to live because of the clubs’ activities. Likewise, the accomplished young people that the clubs recognize have the good manners to gracefully accept the gift in the spirit it’s offered. And perhaps, following the example of a geezer like me, some of those kids may even use a printed dictionary now and then.

But that photo had the feel of another era because, let’s face it, a printed dictionary is an anomaly in the digital age, as relevant to what students use today as a buggy whip was to drivers when cars took over the roads. Or maybe it’s like a newspaper at a time when Facebook and Twitter not only relay a new form of news, they change the world.

Some folks are technologically clueless and others intentionally limit their exposure to the fog of data that spews from our online gadgets. But the consequences of the digital revolution affect all of us regardless of how we feel about having more information than we could ever hope to use. Budget cuts are a good example.

Governor Cuomo has promised to cut unfunded state mandates, those requirements that the legislature in Albany imposes but tells us we must pay for, usually through our property taxes. It’s a noble goal that deserves support. But it has practical limits, something illustrated by an audit of information technology (IT) at the Taconic Hills School District released recently by the Office of the State Comptroller.

Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli has the authority to investigate how school districts handle IT and to require changes, even costly ones, if his office determines that a district does not comply with state laws and regulations. His office sniffed around Taconic Hills for a year or so and came up with a laundry list of things the district must do right away just as the school board faces big cuts in state aid in the upcoming budget. In effect, the people in the district have to pay for the investigation through their state income taxes and for fixing the problems through their property taxes. It makes a taxpayer ask: Don’t these people have something better to do?

Read the audit and decide for yourself. It’s online at www.osc.state.ny.us/localgov/audits/schools/2011/taconichills.pdf. The first thing it says is that at the time of the audit, which ended last summer, the school district didn’t have a policy for notifying people if somebody hacked into its system. That might matter if somebody got hold of a student’s medical records or information that would allow a thief to steal your identity. You’d want to know.

At the time, the district didn’t have a disaster recovery plan for its data either. We all hope no disaster ever strikes the school, and odds are one won’t. But unforeseen events happen all the time, and what if the IT system was compromised just when students needed their records for college applications? How much more would it cost to restore the system if a disaster plan was not in place?

The audit also identified improvements needed to control access to school data and computer equipment — common sense stuff that, when you add together, will cost something to fix, even if it’s only for the time it takes to put new procedures in place. But once they’re in place these requirements should lower the risk that the costs of a catastrophe will be multiplied because no one planned for the worst case. These are mandates, but they’re designed to protect taxpayers not fleece them.

School district officials say they are moving quickly to adopt the policies and procedures in the audit, some of which were already in the works before the comptroller’s office issued its report. That’s a good start, but the Board of Education now should do its own research with the help of the comptroller, the School Boards Association and through contacts with neighboring districts.

Board members should tell taxpayers whether the district’s IT problems should never have happened and why they won’t happen again. Or they should admit that the district is overwhelmed by a world so awash in technology that even the best intentioned among us can’t hope to keep up.

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