What a difference a split-second decision can make.
Two possible scenarios:
- You cross the street to make your bus connection, stand at the bus stop, get on the bus and go about your business.
- You cross the street to make your bus connection but notice an ad in the window of a corner market, advertising that the lottery is up to ten million dollars. You buy a ticket. You win.
We are faced with life-changing decisions every day, never knowing that different, seemingly inconsequential actions will take us down amazingly different paths.
In 2006, I made one such decision and it culminated in an outcome I could never have imagined. And while it didn’t entail winning ten million dollars, it did set me on a path so astoundingly complex it’s hard to imagine my life being any other way.
In 2006 my 13 year old daughter jumped into the passenger seat of my pickup truck, excited to be out of school on a Friday afternoon. She bubbled with the days happenings and experiences and then stopped briefly. “Oh, here…I’m supposed to give you or mom this.”
I glanced at the sheet of paper, beginning with Dear Parent or Guardian. I stuck it in my shirt pocket and let my daughter continue her monologue about her day.
After dinner, I reached for a pen in my pocket and my fingers brushed the folded note Amanda had given me earlier. Unfolding it, I scanned the few lines of typed print and abscently tossed it down on the coffee table in front of me. It wasn’t anything I wasn’t used to. Just a note telling me we needed to purchase some additional software for our daughter’s school work.
“Dear Parent or Guardian,
“Your student will need Microsoft Office on her home computer this semester in order to complete her studies. If you already have Microsoft Office on a computer your child uses, there is no need to purchase another license. If Microsoft Office is not available to your child, please check mark one of the choices below. You may be eligible for assistance. Should you be unable to afford a license, we will evaluate each request for a reduced-cost license on a case by case basis.”
At that time, the last thing we worried about was spending a couple of hundred dollars on software. I probably had $200 in the spare change jar in the library. We lived in a big house, with a comfortable six figure income. Life was good. A purchase like this wasn’t anything to worry about. It wasn’t the cash outlay that bothered me. It was the fact that a public school was requesting we purchase a specific brand of software.
Having been a Linux user for a number of years, I knew there were other options and I made it a point to talk with someone at the school. How many people with minimal incomes were being asked to shell out this kind of money when other options were available? How many of our tax dollars were being spent on software that was completely unnecessary?
I am no stranger to the Austin Independent School District. Unfortunately, my claim to fame and the events that led to said infamy are well known. It’s a shame that it had to happen the way it did but again…split second decisions and all that…
I finally got a meeting with the assistant principal at my daughter’s middle school. She was extremely friendly and willing to talk about my ideas and suggestions. When I mentioned that her school could save tens of thousands of dollars by using open source software, she scribbled as I ran down the list of advantages to using open source programs such as Open Office, a program she readily admitted to never hearing of. She shook my hand and told me she would call me directly and let me know after she conferred with her IT staff and the principal. I was extremely excited about the outcome.
As it would turn out, I was also terribly naive.
The returned call she promised was as icy and distant as our initial meeting had been warm and cordial. She informed me that her director of IT strongly recommended against such a change. What it all boiled down to was his statement that:
“It might even be illegal for us to remove Microsoft Office or Windows from previously purchased computers, due to the vendor agreement the school district signed with Microsoft.”
Illegal…really? All that did was prime me for a fight.
I asked her if there was a good time when I could meet with both of them and prove that any such agreement in itself might be illegal and that they were being bullied into using a product they really didn’t need.
No. There would be no such meeting. The subject was closed.
That, in turn, led me to a three year campaign to discover just what was in the agreement between the Austin Independent School District and Microsoft. From 2006 until the middle of 2009 I beat on doors and desks and wrote over two dozen letters to people who might be able to let me get a glimpse at that document. I attended PTSA meetings and talked about this.
What did I hope to gain from said glimpse? I wanted to know how much money AISD was spending on Microsoft software. Nothing more.
It seems they finally got tired of dealing with me.
After a three year battle I got a message on my cell phone informing me I could indeed get the information. I excitedly returned the call only to find that the person was out for lunch. I said I would call back. Before I had the chance to do so though, one of the administrators at AISD headquarters beat me to it.
Oh yeah, she said, it had finally been decided that I could look at that vendor agreement…for a $2,000 administrative fee.
This was obviously a ploy to stop my inquiries. Unfortunately, it worked. My good friend Don Davis tried to raise the money to get these documents exposed, but since I could not make copies or photographs of the documents to publish them, I still would not be able to prove anything. It would have been a classic case of he-said-she-said. No one wanted to invest in something that wouldn’t provide definitive proof.
Don thought my quest was important enough that he made a ten minute documentary about the impact of this requirement for Microsoft Office and other proprietary software. Two of our Reglue directors speak out, as do students and school administrators. The way the administrators tip-toed around the amount of money spent on MS software is telling. The former Director of Engineering for our project, Skip Guenter, offers some unique insight at 5:34 seconds into the clip.
Over the years I have had opportunities to speak with IT directors, teachers and administrators in other school districts. While they are all extremely guarded about what they say, it all comes down to a handful of things, basically inertia and fear.
School administrators don’t care what is purchased or used. When it comes to budget money, often it’s a case of “use it or lose it.” If they don’t spend their allocation of funding, then they might get a reduced amount the next year.
What they care about is smooth, uneventful tenures and recommendations for the next job. IT directors for school districts know that their positions are either sealed or forfeited by how well things run under their care. In my interviews, I’ve found that the majority of IT directors in most school districts are MSCEs.
Oh, like that doesn’t play into it at all.
They know Microsoft; they use Microsoft and are loath to learn anything else. While some of them use Linux in their server rooms, few others know it. It’s like the homely girlfriend or boyfriend that helps you cheat your way through biology class. You might use them for their talents and knowledge but you wouldn’t dare be seen with them in public.
An article in the Austin Chronicle that was written in 2008, talking about my flap with AISD, yielded a response from the then IT Director for that district:
“When asked about the possibility of dumping Windows in favor of Linux, AISD technology director Gray Salada said that in terms of a cost-benefit analysis, it simply isn’t worth it. Windows comes preinstalled on most computers, he said, so there is little savings to be realized from removing it and incurring the costs of retraining teachers and the district’s 12 engineers, who are already proficient in Windows, to support Linux.
“Always the loyalist, Starks counters that in the long run, Linux still saves money: ‘What happens when they have to update their computers? They’re going to have to upgrade sooner or later, and they’re going to pay through the neck.’ Also, he added that the price of Microsoft, which ranges from $50 to $100, is bundled in with the cost of PCs, which he refers to as the ‘Microsoft tax.’ One of the advantages of Linux, according to Starks’ website, is that upgrades are free, and they’re available as soon as they’re ready.”
In other words, you could get twice the mileage out of the same computer by deploying Linux.
“Salada said that the district is keeping close watch for developments in open-source software and ways it can be used to cut costs, but for the immediate future, district computers will continue to run Windows and Mac OS. ‘Maybe when things move to more browser-based applications where a student or teacher can just open up the program without knowing the operating system [we can start using Linux]. But we’re just not there yet.'”
Flash forward to 2014. Is the excuse still “but we’re just not there yet?”
Fortunately no. Even my small town of
freakin’ Mayberry Taylor, Texas has seen the light. They have begun migrating over to a full Google solution, firmly kicking Outlook and Exchange out the door for a more friendly Google email and calendaring system.
It’s about money. It’s about job security. More importantly, it’s about time.
It’s about time we hold our administrators accountable for the money spent within education. Mr. Salada, we are there now. Let’s put the right software into play. It looks like that ugly boyfriend or girlfriend has been given a makeover…
Ken Starks is the founder of the Helios Project and Reglue, which for 20 years provided refurbished older computers running Linux to disadvantaged school kids, as well as providing digital help for senior citizens, in the Austin, Texas area. He was a columnist for FOSS Force from 2013-2016, and remains part of our family. Follow him on Twitter: @Reglue