OPI: Data systems to go from ‘clunky’ to helping customers

Federal funds allocated by the Montana Legislature provide $13.5 million for upgrade

By: - May 11, 2021 7:15 pm

A “clunky” way of managing data is getting a $13.5 million shot in the arm at the Office of Public Instruction.

Last week, an estimated 30 participants including roughly 10 superintendents listened to an overview from OPI’s Michael Sweeney on a data modernization project the state agency said is sorely needed for its own staff, school districts and customers.

“It’s been challenging for both our customers to reach the right people and for us as an agency to track and help people get to resolutions quickly without it being painful,” Sweeney said.

Federal coronavirus relief funds total some $613.2 million for elementary and secondary education in Montana, and the Montana Legislature allocated the money to specific areas. OPI noted an estimated 90 percent of the money must go directly to school districts.

Generally, the funds for the data modernization project will be used to repair, improve or replace existing systems to respond to learning loss associated with the pandemic, according to OPI. Sweeney said the general idea is to reduce “friction” associated with collecting and reporting data.

Montana law requires transparency and public availability of public school performance data, as well as its availability for timely use, Sweeney said Friday in the recorded presentation. Statute calls for, at a minimum, data entry and intuitive reporting that allows school districts to make timely decisions that improve education for students and collaboration.

“If nothing else, that’s kind of the Bible MCA (Montana Code Annotated) that I live by here at the OPI that guides what we do with data and technology,” Sweeney said.

In the video presentation, he also offered evidence of some of the clunkiness that needs to be smoothed out. OPI’s current data management work includes some 50 disparate systems and, for some users, nine different logins and passwords, he said.

None of the participants offered feedback during the virtual meeting last week. Tuesday, however, OPI spokesperson Christopher Averill shared a couple of examples of the updates that will be particularly beneficial to school districts.

Automating the Civil Rights Data Collection system and assisting districts with it would be especially helpful for some of the larger districts, Averill said in an email. He anticipated smaller and mid-size districts would benefit from more intuitive reporting systems and secure login functions, for example.

In the presentation, Sweeney noted the challenges of reporting enrollment when there might be different ways of tracking the data depending on who is doing the counting and when.

“That’s going to help us get organized with the data that we do have so that when we present data, we’re presenting it in the context that makes sense,” Sweeney said.

In general, he said the overall goal is to save time by cutting out unnecessary data entry; secure data by reducing the numbers of accounts people need to log into; support the use of data; and ensure systems can be sustained for the long run instead of needing patchwork additions.

“We expect there to be some major business process changes as a result of these systems modernization,” Sweeney said.

The money allocated for the project comprises $8 million of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief II money that needs to be spent by February 2024 and $5.48 million of ESSER III funds that need to be spent by February 2025. Sweeney said those dates might seem far away, but they would approach quickly.

A request for proposals is expected to be released in July, and a consulting firm should be under contract by October, according to OPI. OPI anticipates initial implementation to begin in the spring and summer of 2022.

Data modernization

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana.