Pittsburgh Schools dials in on modern telephone system

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Pittsburgh Public Schools parents know the drill: If they want to reach their child’s teacher by phone, they have to call the school office, leave a message and hope the slip of paper finds its way into the hands of the teacher.

By this fall, all teachers in the district will have their own phone numbers, which can be found through a dial-by-name directory.

Any messages that are left will be sent to the teacher’s email.

“Our hope is it’s an increase in parents’ and community engagement with our teaching staff,” said Scott Gutowski, interim chief information officer and director of end-user services.

That is one of the benefits of the district’s changeover from an analog phone system to a Voice over Internet Protocol system. Another benefit is saving money.

The district has been spending about $300,000 on its phone bill a year. The new system is expected to drop that to about $50,000 a year.

At first, the change essentially will be a wash on cost because of a five-year lease totaling $1.3 million, but once the lease is over, the district will own the equipment and management software and will begin saving money.

Mr. Gutowski said most phone systems last about 15 years. The analog phones that are being replaced are 17 to 20 years old.

The district already had VoIP in about 30 school buildings and the central office. This month, the 30 other school buildings are getting VoIP equipment.

The whole system is expected to be switched about Aug. 1.

One of the reasons the district spends so much on phones is it has so many prefix dialers, the three digits that follow the area code. It costs more money to dial from one to the other.

The district has 35 prefix dialers, such as 622 for central office in Oakland, 422 for Pittsburgh Allderdice High School and Colfax K-8 in Squirrel Hill, 338 for Pittsburgh CAPA 6-12, Downtown, 323 for Pittsburgh King PreK-8 on the North Side and 571 for Pittsburgh Banksville K-5.

When the new system is ready, all of the phone numbers will use 529 as the prefix dialer.

For at least six months, the old number will automatically transfer to the new.

For publicized numbers, the last four digits won’t change. Thus, the main number for the district — 412-622-3500 — will become 412-529-3500. Publicized numbers account for less than 10 percent of the new numbers.

Within the district, users will be able to simply dial the last four digits of a phone number.

The district has reserved 10,000 numbers that use 529. It will start out using about 8,000 of them for about 6,000 phones.

Some phones have multiple numbers, and some numbers, such as fire alarms, don’t have phones.

As teachers move to different buildings or assignments, they will keep their phone numbers, just as they keep their email addresses.

“I think the impact is going to be positive long term, but the short term is going to be a frustration of new numbers,” Mr. Gutowski said.

“I think by December of this year, we’ll have full adoption and all questions will have been answered.”

Education writer Eleanor Chute: echute@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1955.

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