New phone system at Montevideo Schools provides significant cost savings to the district

Jessica Stölen-Jacobson
Montevideo American-News

At the regular monthly meeting of the Montevideo School Board, Technology Officer Scott Ripley was on hand to give a presentation to the board about the new phone system upgrades, and how those upgrades are saving the district money. Previously the school district was operating under a Toshiba phone system that was over 15 years old. “Maybe even more than 20 years old,” said Ripley. “It was an old analog system, with a message light on it and a push button. It relied on 20 telephone lines we bought from Buoyant, six lines from CenturyLink, and one from Charter. That was even kind of a mystery to figure out because we had all of these telephone bills coming in.” The district had expenses associated with that account of around $1,000 a month just to have the various telephone lines and numbers, another average of $50 a month for long-distance charges, and expenses over the years of roughly $40,000 in maintenance and upgrades alone. “They don’t make the parts anymore. The repair techs were buying parts off eBay,” said Ripley. 

Another issue the old system presented was a lack of ease in transferring lines for various job position changes, new hires, and retirees. “That usually involved calling this company and they’d have to run a phone line, sometimes put a card in the system, program the extension of that card. Every time we needed to change a line it would cost a couple hundred bucks. There was a huge expense with maintaining it,” Ripley says. Over last winter, Ripley began exploring Voice Over IP (VOIP) systems. “They’ve been around for a few years,” Ripley explained. “These phone systems run entirely over data. You don’t run phone lines for them. Even electricity can be run over the data network. I got three proposals with the following installations and five-year licensing costs.”

The first proposal was from Ring Central which included maintenance, cloud hosting, and no hardware on-site. With Ring Central providing full-management services, the five-year contract estimated cost was $277,000. Another company considered was Mitel/Merkel, a company that generally services larger organizations, which, with 218 extensions, Montevideo Schools would qualify as. That contract was at an expense of $107,000 for five years and would include some hardware installation, management, and repair by the company at additional costs. Ripley noted that the company he went with, 3CX is a fairly new company that is locally hosted and runs on no equipment other than a virtual server. “We have that added to our network in addition to our other 29 servers. It runs completely in-house and there’s no outside connectivity to the cloud. Repairs and maintenance are done in-house because it runs on a server in our data center that I already manage and the data cables and switches that I manage,” he said. The cost is $30,000 over five years. Ripley said the programming was done on the system in July and the phones were plugged in last August. “Whenever we have a phone line change all it amounted to was taking the phones and putting them at a desk and plugging in some changes in the server. Nobody had to come here,” he said. 

Ripley also pointed out that besides the cost-saving of not having to pay for maintenance, management, and separate phone lines, there are more features available to the district. “Everyone now has voicemail to email access across the board. With others, you had to pay a licensing fee to get more users above the limit. With this, all staff have access to voicemail to email, and a web app to put this on their cell phone. That was a big issue during COVID, teachers wanted to call parents at home but the staff didn’t want to have to call from their personal cell phones. With this service, you can have the app on your phone and make calls from the app and it looks like the call is coming from my desk. That all runs off our server in-house, too,” he said. 

School board member Kelly Snell expressed concern over what would happen with the management of the lines being done entirely in-house if something were to happen to Ripley. He assured the board that there is a disaster plan in the vault of the school that provides all necessary information, and that also there is an option of having an outside source manage the system.

Also at the meeting, the board reviewed gifts and donations, noting that there was a $200 donation from Minnwest Bank for the Individuals With Disabilities program. There was also a donation of $100 from an individual for the children’s fund. There was also a thousand dollar donation from the Lions and Leos Club for the Prairie Fire Theater production this winter to be held Friday, December 10th at the Hollywood Theater. This year’s production will be The Wizard of Oz. There was also a note of a donation of three welders from J&D Construction.