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Centralized Education System Gets Mixed Reviews

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RALEIGH, N.C. — It was sold as a computer system to improve education in North Carolina's public schools, but the N.C. WISE program has been plagued by complaints, delays and cost overruns -- more than $100 million over some estimates.

After a sluggish start, the North Carolina Window of Information on Student Education, or N.C. WISE, record-keeping system is gradually winning favor, but there are still plenty of questions about whether taxpayers are getting their money's worth.

The N.C. WISE vision is a computer on every North Carolina teacher and administrator's desk where attendance, grade, health and demographic records from 1.4 million students can easily be managed and linked to a centralized state system in Raleigh.

Armed with detailed information, educators can craft curricula and track achievement from administrative office to classroom.

"The value of capturing the data at the source and then having that data is essential," said Wake County Schools Chief Technology Officer Bev White.

But White said making N.C. WISE work was no easy task. Pilot programs revealed compatibility problems and data overloads. Teachers complained they could not teach.

"It was painful in pockets, yes, and it wasn't all change that brought the frustration," White said. "Some of it was due to technical problems."

"Those who were involved during the pilot suffered through real difficulties because the system was not all that early on," said Department of Public Instruction Technology Chief Dr. Bob Bellamy, who contends the pilot served its purpose to work out the kinks.

Now, DPI is getting favorable feedback on N.C. WISE. Cost analysis, however, is not so favorable. When the first bid was awarded in 1999, many thought $55 million would cover statewide implementation.

"There was confusion of the original contract amount and the project budget," Bellamy said.

Bellamy said the overall budget was more like $150 million. Over time, the N.C. WISE budget ballooned to an estimated $250 million.

"I think the real problem is when we start putting a program together this big, we don't know all the things we need to know about how we're going to implement it," said Rep. Joe Tolson, D-Edgecombe.

South Carolina school leaders say they got a similar system for an estimated $37 million and is now fully implemented into South Carolina school systems. N.C. Wise is implemented in just one-third of the state's schools.

"I think that's a real concern," Tolson said. "I guarantee you, you can look back on any 10-year project and find ways to improve."

"I think it's very much going to show, certainly over time, that it's a worthwhile investment," Bellamy said. "It's helping us get a better job done with every child."

DPI leaders argue it could be misleading to compare costs of N.C. WISE to South Carolina because the system capabilities are different and that the South Carolina program is not on a centralized system.

Supporters say it is too late to back out on N.C. WISE now.

State funding keeps coming and the estimate to complete the project is 2007.


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