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Northampton school officials cope with ‘surprise’ shutoff of Blackboard Connect calling system

School officials say Northampton’s calling system vendor, Blackboard Connect, shut down the system without notice Nov. 13, leaving administrators to rely on traditional phone tree communications for group messages to school staff and parents for several days.

The automatic calling system is used for messages about weather-related closings and other emergencies, as well as more mundane school matters such as meeting dates and report card schedules.

School Business Manager Mark McLaughlin said Blackboard’s shutoff of the calling service came as “a total surprise” to the district.

“We’ve been having a heck of a time with this,” he said.

McLaughlin said Blackboard shut down the calling service last week without notice and it took several days before administrators were able to pinpoint the reason. The system was up and running again as of late Monday.

Matt Mauer, a spokesman in Blackboard’s Washington, D.C., office, said the company “has been working closely with the schools to update their account status, and as part of that have reinstated service, which had been temporarily suspended.”

He said that out of respect for client privacy, Blackboard does not release detailed information about client contracts. Instead, the company refers those questions to the clients themselves.

McLaughlin said the school department was unaware that its two-year $10,439 contract with Blackboard Connect was in arrears until the calling service was shut off last week. McLaughlin stressed that the school department was willing to pay what it owed but it took several days to make those arrangements because Blackboard didn’t return phone calls.

“The only way we’ve been able to communicate with them is by email,” he said. “We’ve been jumping through hoops for days.”

The automatic calling system plays a key role in school communications — and not just during emergencies, according to school staff.

Kim Broussard, administrative assistant at Northampton High School, said her school uses the system on a daily basis for attendance and tardy calls.

“I also use it for community outreach probably one or two times a week,” Broussard said. “This past week, it did affect me contacting parents about a blood drive scheduled for Friday, and also I couldn’t remind them that report cards went home with their students on Thursday.”

“I did miss it,” she said.

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