The Rodney Dangerfields of NYS education finally get some respect
On Board Online • February 5, 2018
By Eric D. Randall
If you serve on a school board or work in a school district in New York State, you're familiar with the state's 37 BOCES (Boards of Cooperative Educational Services). But how much do you know about their cousins, the RICs (Regional Information Centers)?
The state's 12 RICs are teams of experts in technology - an increasingly important part of every school's operations and instruction. They operate as divisions of BOCES with expanded service footprints. Like BOCES, their mission is to provide services and personnel to support school districts.
Unlike BOCES, the RICs have a low public profile. They have gotten little attention - even from NYSSBA. While BOCES have been mentioned 7,500 times in On Board since 2010, there have been only 27 mentions of RICs. Look in the index of the 36th edition of NYSSBA's School Law and you'll find absolutely nothing on RICs.
RICs are the Rodney Dangerfields of New York State public education.
Just ask Dale Breault, director of the Northeastern Regional Information Center (NERIC), which serves 140 school districts in 17 counties stretching from the Capital District to the Canadian border. In 2013, Breault left his job as superintendent of the Chateaugay Central School District in Franklin County to join NERIC, and he remembers his father's reaction: "I don't know how to brag about you anymore."
But now there is a bragging point for Breault, his dad and the entire RIC system: NERIC has won a prestigious national award.
In December, NERIC received the Brian L. Talbott Award from the Association of Education Service Agencies (AESA), a professional organization serving BOCES and their peer organizations in 45 states. Named for a former AESA president, the award goes to an individual or agency for contributions in the area of technological innovation and support for local school districts.
In the world of RICs and BOCES, this news is viewed as the equivalent of winning an Academy Award.
"We could not be more proud of NERIC and Dale Breault, the director, for receiving this national distinction," said Anita Murphy, district superintendent of Capital Region BOCES, which is one of seven BOCES affiliated with NERIC. "This is a true testament to the hard work we all do on behalf of the students we serve."
How RICs were formed
The state Legislature formed BOCES in 1948 to provide shared educational programs and services to school districts within the state. In the late 1960s, school districts began sharing mainframe punch-card computers for financial accounting and student scheduling. In the early 1970s, some of these shared computer centers merged, began operating within BOCES, and became known as Regional Computer Centers.
Telecommunications technology to support education and school district operations continued to grow in the 1970s and early 1980s. At some point, Regional Computer Centers became known as Regional Information Centers.
In 1985, Section 1952 was added to the state Education Law, creating the Technology Network Ties program. Then theÿRegional Information Centers began to play the role they currently play.
Their three main areas of focus are administrative services (such as payroll), data management and providing technical support for technology in the classroom.
School administrators depend on RICs for many functions. One is data security. "RICs house our sensitive student and financial information in state-of-the-art highly secure data servers," said Patrick McGrath, superintendent of the Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake Central School District. "They back up that data, providing a strong disaster recovery plan. This helps districts to avoid the expense (and risk) of building and maintaining these types of servers."
Another of RICs' most important roles is serving as an intermediary with private industry companies that want to sell technical goods and services to school districts. RICs enable local school administrators to focus on education instead of dealing with a long list of vendors all day long.
RICs often bundle multiple vendors' products into a package that includes training and technical support. They represent a buying group big enough to "move the market" and negotiate favorable terms with vendors.
RICs' educational role
RIC administrators are quick to point out that RICs are much more than payroll processors, technology providers and software buyers. They are educational organizations with an educational mission.
As educational technology has become increasingly important in the classroom, RICs have become catalysts for change in public education. NERIC, for instance, has organized a Technology Awareness Day to encourage conversations within the community of users, so strategies that work in one district can be showcased for others.
Also, NERIC runs a virtual "mini-high school" - a distance learning program that offers about 150 courses per day and has more than 2,500 students participating in NERIC's 17-county service area.
Both the Technology Awareness Day and distance learning initiatives were among the achievements NERIC cited in its application for the Talbott award.
Breault described the award as reflecting a dedication to excellence that is in no way restricted to his regional operation. "Any of our RICs could have won this award if they had applied," Breault said. "There are a lot of similarities in what all the RICs do."
On the other hand, it's also true that individual RICs are unique and have carved out niches of expertise. For instance, South Central RIC in Binghamton is the standard-bearer for managed IT services. Instead of buying Internet services from Verizon or Spectrum Time Warner, districts can get the same kind of services directly from South Central or other RICs.
The RICs have pooled their resources and formed a brand they call RIC One. It's a gateway for districts seeking access to several essential services, including educational software purchasing and support.
"Collectively, the 12 RICs across the state employ about 2,000 experts, and we have recently begun building virtual teams with experts from multiple centers who work to achieve common goals and outcomes," said Heather Mahoney, director of Mohawk RIC.
"As RICs, we work together well," said Dennis Lauro, executive director of Lower Hudson RIC. "Our efforts over the last several years have been to do more things to assist each other, to avoid redundancies and to build off of each other's strengths rather than to compete against each other."
Praise for NERIC
News of NERIC winning a national award was greeted by many in the state with cheers of approval.
"NERIC has been a tremendous partner," said Stephen Shafer, district superintendent for Franklin-Essex-Hamilton BOCES. "As a BOCES serving several small rural districts spread out over 2,500 square miles, NERIC services are particularly important," he said. "Independently, we would be unable to provide our districts and students with anything close to the breadth of services available through NERIC."
He added, "NERIC maintains a personal touch even though they cover a significant portion of New York State."
Vendors also praise NERIC as a business partner.
"Our NERIC partnership started in 2005 and has been going strong for over 10 years," said Jack Hibit, technical sales executive for "SchoolTool," a student management system used in nearly half of the state's school districts. It's an important relationship because districts often want to have other software packages integrated into SchoolTool.
"Based upon their knowledge of the needs of their districts, they provide great advice to us that help us prioritize our future product road map," Hibit said. He added, "Like with any partnership there may be problems, and the NERIC staff has always been respectful working with our staff even in difficult times."
McGrath of the Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake school district emphasized the role of NERIC and the other RICS in helping districts use technology to improve both operations and instruction.
"The technical landscape faced by schools is constantly changing," he said. "To be successful, school leaders must make critical decisions on diverse topics including network and server maintenance, student management systems, instructional software, technical support, distance learning, and data privacy. It is nearly impossible for most school districts to directly employ individuals with expertise in every one of these areas. NERIC provides a place where a wide variety of expertise is pooled and shared with member districts."
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