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TIES collaborative faces uncertain future

ST. PAUL — A collaborative that for 50 years has helped outfit many of Minnesota's schools with the latest in technology suddenly faces an uncertain future.

The 48 member districts that make up Technology Information and Educational Services, or TIES, will decide in January if the organization should update its business model to stay relevant or begin the two-year process of closing up shop. The move comes after TIES raised membership fees by 67 percent and more than a quarter of its members signaled they plan to leave.

"We are not the only gig in town anymore," said Dan Luth, chair of the TIES executive committee, noting that districts can now choose from a plethora of educational technology now on the market. "We have found more and more districts are exercising that choice."

Since 1967, TIES has provided tools to help districts manage finances and student information. It recent years, the collaborative has become a technology training resource for its members and roughly 200 other districts across Minnesota and the Upper Midwest.

Much of the organization's funding comes from a per-student membership fee — which was recently increased from $3 to $5 — and other per-student fees for services.

Mark Wolak, TIES executive director, said that as education software becomes more complex and districts have more choices, his organization has struggled to remain competitive and its roughly $43 million annual budget has suffered. TIES is now asking members if they would be better off buying all their technology needs on the open market.

"What was a predictable stream of revenue has become unpredictable," Wolak said. "Our challenge is to make sure we are a value and not a burden."

Thirteen of TIES's 48 member districts have now given the organization the advanced notice required to pull out of the collaborative. In the east metro, the West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan district has made plans to leave, as has Burnsville-Eagan-Savage. Other districts also have discussed it.

TIES members are concentrated around the Twin Cities, but also stretch as far north as the East Central school district in Sandstone, Minn., and as far west as St. Cloud.

Dave Sandum, technology director for the West St. Paul district, said it was the first district to give TIES notice in 2014 that it planned to leave the collaborative.

The decision to leave was largely because employees and parents found some TIES products difficult to use and frustrating, Sandum said. District officials, for example, have found finance and student-information management systems they like better at an annual savings of $80,000 a year.

West St. Paul still uses TIES' FeePay system to collect payments from families, and that might be difficult to replace if TIES dissolves.

"There are a lot of options out there for collecting fees online, but not a lot that handle everything a school district needs," Sandum said. The district also gets its internet access through the collaborative.

Complex transition

If TIES members decide to dissolve the 50-year-old organization, migrating to new software platforms would be a challenging process for districts large and small.

The Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan district, the state's fourth largest and one of the biggest TIES customers, has used the organization's tools since 1967. TIES software processes payments from parents, manages students' academic and personal information, and helps the district report its financial transactions to the state.

Jeff Solomon, the Rosemount district's finance director, said school leaders are determining whether to support TIES' continued operation or look elsewhere for software to help manage the district of 28,000 students.

"I think there is always an opportunity for savings when districts collaborate," Solomon said. "I do agree the market has changed dramatically. It is a good idea to re-evaluate and confirm what you are doing is in the best interest of the organization."

Past problems

The uncertainty at TIES comes three years after the organization was rocked by an independent audit that uncovered financial mismanagement and nepotism. The probe was initiated after board members became concerned about the organization's finances.

At the time of the audit, TIES was projecting a budget deficit of nearly $3 million. The conclusion of the financial examination coincided with the sudden retirement of longtime TIES leader Betty Schweizer.

Wolak and Luth, who've been working to improve TIES' finances and management, acknowledged that the audit's findings damaged the organization's reputation.

"It definitely hurt our brand, and that has been tough to recover from," Wolak said. He added that TIES' fiscal management has improved and a recent routine audit was the "cleanest since 2014."

New way forward

Despite the Burnsville school board's 6-0 vote in November to leave TIES, Luth believes the organization can find a path to remain financially viable and useful to its members.

Luth and Wolak note that TIES has become a local leader in technology training, hosting events throughout the year at the organization's remodeled conference center in Falcon Heights. TIES' premier event is coming up Dec. 10, 11 and 12, when up to 3,000 educators will converge in Minneapolis for an annual technology conference.

As classroom tools become more complex, the type of training and technical support provided by TIES could be the most cost-effective way for school districts to keep up with online trends.

"That's something for the future," Luth said. "Many districts cannot afford technology staff. Maybe you can rent it."

Rather than developing new software products like TIES did in the past, Wolak believes the organization can help districts connect with the vendors who best fit their individual needs; that includes the increasingly sensitive area of cyber security and protecting data about students and staff.

Luth and Wolak added that TIES leaders are open to other possibilities the collaborative's members bring forward if they decide to continue the organization.

"I'm proud of the work we have done here to get this place in shape," Wolak said. "I'm hopeful the districts will make a good decision and we will move forward based on what they want to do."

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