Tuesday, January 16, 2018
Education

Aging computers flagged in Hillsborough schools, including one running COBOL

TAMPA — Got COBOL? The Hillsborough County School District does.

The nation's eighth-largest school district relies on a computer language that was invented in 1959, unfamiliar to a lot of programmers educated in the current century.

The district uses it for a student information system that originally was housed in an IBM mainframe computer dating back to 1984. It spends $1.5 million annually to maintain the hardware and software.

"It's true," said Patti Simmons, the district's supervisor of data analysis, when shown this page of description from a consultant's report.

Gibson Consulting Group, which specializes in school district management, included the critique of the student information system in a lengthy report that was rolled out Tuesday for the Hillsborough County School Board.

It was one of numerous deficiencies that Gibson identified in district technology.

Another: Compared to other large school districts, Hillsborough's students are more likely to learn in computer labs on large, clunky desktops that are past their recommended life­span than they are in their classrooms with smaller tablets.

Greg Gibson, president of the consulting group, and his team spent an hour outlining these and other findings in the third phase of a study that began in late 2015.

Board members Cindy Stuart and Sally Harris, reacting to the presentation, said they were embarrassed by the technology deficit.

Although the 1984 IBM computer has since been replaced, the consultants wrote that "this is an old and outdated system.'' Many of the district's COBOL programmers are near retirement, they wrote, "and finding new COBOL programmers to replace them will be extremely difficult."

Current staff members are able to support only the current environment. As the school district transitions to a newer platform — something cloud-based, for example — staffers will need to be retrained or replaced.

According to Gibson, the district has 14 employees who work as COBOL programmers and mainframe operators.

In contrast, the neighboring Pinellas County School District contracted with Focus School Software, a St. Petersburg-based company, for its student information system in 2010. Assistant superintendent of technology and information Tom Lechner said the system costs about $450,000 a year for licensing and maintenance, and is managed by four full-time district staffers.

He said the district two years ago purchased "beefed-up" servers, which are housed at the school district's Largo headquarters.

Warnings about outdated computer systems are not new. In an earlier phase of its report, Gibson Consulting noted that another consultant had recommended upgrades for Hillsborough in 2013. The school district was advised to move away from the in-house-developed mainframe system and into a commercial off-the-shelf system.

Plans are under way to leave what Simmons called the district's "legacy system."

But, she acknowledged, "it will take a couple of years."

Government agencies across the country are also making moves to transition away from their decades-old, COBOL-programmed systems.

A study published in May 2016 by Congress' Government Accountability Office chastised a handful of federal agencies, including the Department of Justice and the Treasury Department, for relying on COBOL for their legacy systems.

"It is widely known that agencies need to move to more modern, maintainable languages, as appropriate and feasible," wrote David Powner, the watchdog agency's expert on IT and the study's author.

Many of those federal agencies said they were also planning to move to newer systems over the next several years.

Bill Hinshaw runs COBOL Cowboys, a Texas company that connects COBOL programmers like himself to clients that need them.

He said most of the company's clients are concerned that workers familiar with COBOL won't be around in 10 to 20 years.

Often the work involves translating COBOL programs into newer programmer languages, which Hinshaw said can be a lengthy process.

"I just got through a conversion (for a system) to go from COBOL to Java," he said. "It's taken them four years, and they're still not done."

Times staff writers Nathaniel Lash and Colleen Wright contributed to this report. Contact Marlene Sokol at [email protected] or (813) 810-5068. Follow @marlenesokol.

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