Teddy Maki

For several weeks late last year, Bernadeia Johnson undertook a very precise morning ritual. As soon as she got up, she'd call Hall Community School in north Minneapolis, where she has been principal for a year and a half, to see if the phones were working. More often than not between late November and winter break, they weren't. So she'd go to the school and drop off her cell phone in the main office to ensure that the staff would have a way to communicate with students and parents in case of an emergency.

"The phones were up and down, up and down," Johnson recalls. "With today's technology, you think you can just pick up the phone and use it. It was frustrating." As if to underline her point, as Johnson speaks, the cell phone she's using keeps breaking up, making it increasingly difficult to understand what she's saying.

Johnson's school was one of three north Minneapolis elementary schools that had its phone service knocked out during December. The others, West Central Academy and Lincoln Community School, faced similar problems; all had to send letters to parents explaining the situation and offering alternate contact information, which included cell phones, neighboring schools whose phones were unaffected, and the school district's area office.

The phone problems stemmed from the breakdown of an outdated piece of equipment that routes calls to the three schools. Minneapolis Public Schools spokeswoman Melissa Winter says the district has been working for the past two years to upgrade its fifteen-year-old phone system. When the $3 million project is completed this spring, every classroom will be equipped with a phone that features voicemail and other capabilities.

The failing equipment, says Qwest spokesman Bryce Hallowell, employs a system called "lynch technology" that's so antiquated it's no longer manufactured, which means Qwest technicians must cannibalize other systems to repair it. "There's a life cycle to every piece of telephony equipment," Hallowell explains. "This is aging technology that needs a lot of tender loving care to keep it running at this point."

According to Hallowell, most businesses that relied on lynch technology have long since upgraded to newer systems. But to do so requires a sizable investment. "It would have been great if we had $3 million all at once and could switch it all over during one summer," says Melissa Winter. "But I'm sure that's not what we can do with taxpayer dollars." The schools have been racing to upgrade their phones before the old hardware breaks down for good--a race that Hall, West Central, and Lincoln lost, at least temporarily, last month.

The wireless company Nextel Communications donated a dozen cell phones to help out while the phones were down, Winter says. But in order to send and receive faxes, staffers had to make periodic runs to nearby schools whose phone lines were working.

By the time classes resumed last week, the phones appeared to be working. To prevent future problems, the three schools have been moved up the priority list to be switched over to the new system; instead of waiting till spring, they should have their new phones by the end of this month.

Last week Qwest sent over about 20 cell phones for the schools to use--a move Winter says the schools appreciated, even if they found the timing a bit perplexing. "All the principals were like, 'Great,'" she says with a chuckle, adding that she promptly called Qwest and asked, "'Do you realize the phones are back working?'

"I guess they're still not 100 percent sure," she surmises. "It's just a gesture to ensure that if something does happen, we'll have phones."

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