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Originally published Tuesday, February 26, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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"Dinosaur" computer stalls Seattle schools' plans

so old that the University of Washington has an early model on display as a museum piece — stands between the Seattle School Board...

Seattle Times education reporter

An aging computer — so old that the University of Washington has an early model on display as a museum piece — stands between the Seattle School Board and the changes it wants to make in how the district assigns students to schools.

The computer, called a VAX, was first sold in the late 1970s. The district still uses two VAXes of late-'80s to mid-90s vintage. They use old-fashioned disks and stand about 5 feet tall. Staff members sometimes look for used replacement parts on eBay.

To keep tweaking the VAXes, district staff warned last week, is risky and a waste of time. To replace them, however, likely comes with a cost that made School Board members cringe: a delay of about a year in putting the new assignment plan into action.

"I gotta say: What did we do before computers?" a frustrated Michael DeBell asked at a board work session last week. "I'm reluctant to accept that ... technology is limiting our policymaking process."

The board has been discussing changes in its school-assignment policy since May. They passed an outline in June that the board hopes will increase predictability and consistency for families because each student would be guaranteed a seat in a school close to home. Now, students and their families submit a list of preferences, and a series of rules determines where students are assigned.

The board planned to finalize the details this year, and still intends to do so. With this computer roadblock, however, the plan's implementation probably will slip from fall 2009 to fall 2010.

The VAX was first sold in 1979, and early models were about as big as two refrigerators. Hank Levy, chairman of the UW's computer-science and engineering department, was part of the team that designed its operating system. The VAX on display in the lobby of the department's Paul G. Allen Center was an early model that Levy said at one time "ran our entire department."

Today, however, any current-generation PC is a supercomputer compared with a VAX, he said, even a later-model VAX such as the ones in use at Seattle school headquarters.

"It was a great system for its day, but its day is long past," Levy said.

Although it's hard to compare computing power of different systems, he also said that, in rough terms, even the later-model VAXes have only about 1/20th the power of an iPhone.

The model used by Seattle is "much less of a dinosaur," he added, "but it's still a dinosaur."

Nevertheless, Levy said he knows that many VAXes and even older computers are still in use. They often run customized software that, like the assignment system in Seattle schools, can't be transferred to newer machines.

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The state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, for example, is seeking money this year from legislators to help replace its VAXes.

Seattle school administrators have wanted to replace the VAXes for at least six years.

Steve Nielsen, chief financial officer from 2002 through December 2006, said parts were hard to find when he arrived in the district, and officials worried the VAX system would crash permanently. But the district had more pressing financial concerns at the time, he said.

"We were trying to avoid laying off teachers, and we kept the infrastructure going with bubble gum and baling wire."

The district already has moved many programs off the VAX, such as payroll. But the custom, complicated set of software programs used to assign students to schools still lives on the VAX.

About $2 million is earmarked in a capital bond to help retire the VAX, but Don Kennedy, the district's chief financial and operating officer, isn't sure whether that will be enough.

He was the one to break the bad news to the School Board at last week's work session.

"We can put a lot of resources and effort into tinkering around the edges of the VAX," he said. "And it would take a lot of resources and effort. Eventually, we still have to do a complete conversion. I don't think it's wise to duplicate the work."

DeBell strongly pressed for staff to find a way to avoid a delay. He stressed that the district's assignment plan is also "past its useful life."

Waiting another year, he said, "inflicts pain on the families we serve, and ourselves."

But there also seemed to be an air of resignation that it's high time to take a difficult step that's been sidestepped in the past.

"My feeling is: Let's get this darn thing rolling," board member Harium Martin-Morris said. "Let's just get rolling."

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or lshaw@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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