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Districts Worry Year 2000 Glitch May Do a Number on Software

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Politicians may hail the coming millennium as a time of hope and challenge, but at least one group of people--computer programmers--face the year 2000 with embarrassment.

Most software programs written during the past three decades--enabling school districts, businesses, and government agencies across the country to automate many essential operations--will cause an epidemic of data errors when that milestone year dawns if they are not corrected soon.

Some districts are already seeing errors.

The reason is as maddeningly simple as the solution is intricate and costly. Until recently, programmers used a shortcut to save effort and computer memory: They abbreviated the year in records and date-related functions to just the final two digits. For example, 1992 becomes "92" in six-character fields that show the month, day, and year.

In the late 1980s, programmers realized that, in a host of computer programs still in widespread use today, the year 2000 would show up as "00." Computers, however, would not be able to distinguish 2000 from 1900.

Dates beyond 1999 would be rejected as invalid, or even worse, lead to wildly errant calculations.

Jury-Rigging Systems

The "year 2000 compliance problem," as the glitch is known, means trouble for nearly every organization that uses computers--especially older, custom-made systems that run on mainframes.

But even some software programs written in the 1990s are susceptible. Computer experts say that solving the problem nationwide will cost billions of dollars over the next few years.

Direct costs to school districts will vary widely--depending on their size, degree of automation, and access to outside resources.

Already, districts have seen year-2000 errors cropping up in systems that track the expiration of employees' teaching certificates and the status-review schedules of children in special education.

"We're having to jury-rig our system now" to avoid errors in certification records, said Barry Prokop, the coordinator of personnel services for the Fairfax County, Va., schools. The 147,000-student district's long-term solution, he said, is to purchase new personnel software.

Fairfax County has approached the problem in the manner that many experts recommend. Several years ago, programmers began scanning about 800 administrative computer programs for the obsolete date fields. Then, they analyzed how the dates are linked across multiple programs and determined what recoding would be necessary.

Because district officials wanted to modernize many of their computer systems anyway, they decided in many cases that buying new software would be more efficient than repairing the old code.

Safety in Numbers

Not all large districts, however, have addressed the problem.

"Quite honestly, we haven't looked into it," said Walter Matlock, the director of information systems for the 60,000-student Fulton County, Ga., schools. By the turn of the century, most of the Atlanta-area district's mainframe computer systems will be replaced, he said.

Fulton County is one of 37 large Georgia districts that have opted out of using the standard financial software provided by the state. For the 143 participating Georgia districts, however, the year 2000 isn't a problem.

The state is planning changes in its software that will be distributed free to participating districts, said Bailey Mitchell, the program director for technical services at the Georgia Department of Education.

Nationwide, many districts are finding safety in numbers. Computer consortia and regional educational-service agencies, which have become popular in recent years, will help spread the costs of the overhaul.

A consortium of 13 Louisiana districts, for example, looks to the Lafourche Parish schools to develop and distribute administrative software. Member districts pay an annual fee of "a couple thousand dollars," said Britt Ladet, Lafourche's data-processing director.

Another group effort is the Washington School Information Processing Cooperative, in Lynnwood, near Seattle, which provides financial and personnel computer services for 276 of the state's 296 districts.

George Horner, the manager of product development for the cooperative, said he has been working on the problem since 1987.

"It's probably the one instance when I've been farsighted," he said. Over the years, the cooperative's programmers have added extra spaces to date fields during routine maintenance; alterations to the major computer systems should be completed within a year.

When all the revisions are done, Mr. Horner said, "my intent is to take one of computers, set the clock ahead [to 2000], and run through a full battery of testing, just to make sure we haven't overlooked something."

Help From Vendors

But experts warn that even districts that belong to cooperatives generally have administrative software that the service agency does not support.

Some will seek help from commercial software vendors or the many accounting firms and computer consultants now offering year-2000 services.

"We're counting on vendors to save us from disaster, if any is impending," said William Shirer, the director of pupil services and instruction in the Mosinee, Wis., district. The 2,000-student district, which has no in-house programmers, relies on a commercial school-administration software package from Skyward Inc.

The Stevens Point, Wis.-based vendor has made year-2000 compliance a priority and will distribute revised software to its current customers at no additional cost, said Carolyn Weiland, the company's marketing manager.

Other districts might not be so lucky, experts say. As time dwindles, the scramble for solutions will intensify, the fees of consultants will escalate, and their ranks might swell with untrustworthy providers.

Only by planning now, experts advise, can districts avoid a crisis. "Unfortunately, a lot of school systems are not going to realize the danger until 2000 or 1999," said Mr. Prokop of Fairfax County. "In 1999, people will pay anything to make it go away."

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