Mark Messias, administrator of information technology services for the School Department, tracks current systems while keeping past material at hand/ Credit: Needham Observer

In some ways, confidence in the success of merging the town and School Department’s information technology (IT) staff, which has been recently approved by the Select Board and the School Committee, was inspired by the performance of custodians and building maintenance workers. The IT merger, say its proponents, will improve the efficiency, quality, and organization of IT staff and systems. In making the case, School Superintendent Dan Gutekanst pointed to a similar merger of school and town building maintenance staff as a model.

“There were duplicative efforts and it just wasn’t always as coherent as it could be,” said Gutekanst. “And so there’s an agreement that the town would be in charge of all maintenance, even though we’re the largest tenant, if you will. It’s a collaborative effort that goes back many years and works very well.”

The IT merger is written into the budget for approval at Annual Town Meeting this spring, calling for additional funds of approximately $934,000, but it has been more than a year in the making and has effectively been tested during that time. 

It started with a simple need. “The town lost key IT staff,” said Town Manager Kate Fitzpatrick. “We had a critical situation.” The School Department’s IT team stepped in to help. “It evolved from there,” she said. 

The temporary solution, overseen by Mark Messias, administrator of information technology services for the School Department, led to hiring a consulting team, Plante Moran, to evaluate the entire approach to IT such as job descriptions, knowledge and training, access to systems and how often equipment is upgraded. The firm recommended creating the position of chief IT officer to oversee all of the work townwide and rewriting job descriptions to meet specific needs. The analysis also uncovered some “tech debt” of equipment and systems that lag behind the current standard.

“We are under-resourced in terms of equipment and the pace of upgrades,” said Fitzpatrick.

IT is a major infrastructure pillar for governments. The data needs alone are considerable: tax records and billing, employee records, student information, police and fire records, and the list goes on. Every town employee needs equipment and access to at least some of that information in various ways (mobile, laptop), as do residents, students and teachers. The public safety (police, fire, EMT) needs are critical. Every classroom is wired. It’s a complex series of systems to manage.

The plan calls for consolidating the two departments under the School Department, and having the chief IT officer report to Gutekanst.

“It was not something I was looking for,” Gutekanst said. “In fact, the town manager and [Assistant Superintendent] Ann Gulati will probably tell you I said, ‘I want every which way out of this idea. Find me the exit because we’ve got plenty to do.’”

“But,” he said, “we had the technicians in place. We had a structure of maintenance, of procurement, of keeping up to date, making sure that the wires are connected and that the clouds are in the sky and everything is working. So I knew that it would be helpful to the town.”

Other communities, the consultant’s report said, have arrangements like this one. In this case, Fitzpatrick, Gutekanst and other town officials agreed it would be better to consolidate under the School Department because its operations were so large and its approach was ahead of the town’s. Despite voting in favor of the plan, there was still some head scratching during the Select Board discussion.

“This is a strange one,” said Select Board member Kevin Keane. “I can see that some time later, after you’ve done the consolidation, it might be wiser to put the whole kit and kaboodle back under the town.”

Gutekanst said he will rely on the tech team and a supervisory board made up of leaders from the various town departments. But even school superintendents need to learn, and he has been learning a lot about government IT systems. “I’ll equate it to Covid,” he said, “and how much I learned about viruses and about ventilation. And so I’m learning a lot about servers and networks and cybersecurity. Public safety is a big area, for example. That’s not to say that the superintendent now is going to weigh in on public safety policy. Instead, we’re going to provide the infrastructure and the support so that public safety has all the things it needs.”

“One of the things that’s already happened during the year under Messias’ leadership is that we have now procured the services of an outside vendor who provides 24/7 service for public safety in the event that there is a problem with a system.”

Fitzpatrick said the chiefs of the police and fire departments believe the year of cooperation has been a great experience. “The new structure is not a concern for the chiefs.” In fact, Messias has had more training and a higher level of certification (required by the FBI) than the previous town IT managers. Though it was decades ago, Messias had also worked for the town before moving to the School Department, so he has experience on both sides.

Part of the additional funds requested in the budget, $129,000, will go toward compensation — to retain and attract employees with the right skills and experience. The bulk will be to make up for some of the tech debt, and some will go to additional training. For now, the total number of IT positions will remain the same.

“I think we have the headcount that we need to get us started,” said Gutekanst. “I’ve encouraged people to take a deep breath. Let’s make sure core functions are taken care of. Public safety, finance systems, tax billing systems, the student information system the core functions. Then we will evaluate what’s necessary and what’s not.”

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