Beyond the Call of Duty

Brett Miller steps up to guide IT public policy in Colorado’s second largest school system

Technology executives are not usually known for providing leadership in public policy. For Brett Miller, the chief information officer at Jefferson County Public Schools in Colorado, the needs of the district have prompted him to become a catalyst for expanding a regional fiber-optic cooperative for public entities and for crafting data privacy legislation for schools.

The Denver-area county, known locally as Jeffco, is home to Colorado’s second-largest school system, which includes 155 schools, 9 options schools, and 18 charter schools that serve an 800-square-mile area. Miller oversees IT services for all these public schools, which are dispersed across 22 communities and unincorporated areas, and include 84,000 students and 14,000 staff. His biggest current project is upgrading the network backbone by moving broadband services from a local commercial provider to a private educational and research cooperative. Miller’s biggest challenge in this effort is organizational—getting all of the local governments the Jeffco Schools serve to buy into the plan.

The Bi-State Optical Network (BiSON), is a consortium of research and higher education institutions in the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains that can provide Jeffco Schools higher bandwidth at a great value. But building out the network is a time-consuming affair, as public safety departments, libraries, and other community entities want to join the network. “We have to put it together piece by piece,” Miller says. It’s a slow process. As of late 2016, only two administrative facilities had been connected to BiSON—after two years of work.

Jeffco Schools initially partnered with University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) and the Colorado School of Mines to establish connectivity to the BiSON network. “Our next phase involves getting the infrastructure to our schools, and for that we have to work with the city governments,” Miller says. “Fortunately, our partnership with emergency services allows us to engage with multiple cities. Most are enthusiastic and see the value, such as offering wireless hotspots at our schools for law enforcement officers.”

“A lot of it comes down to transparency. Where is the student information? Who has access to it? How is the data used, shared, and deleted?”

It’s worth the effort because more participants mean that more funding will be available to build out the network. “There is potential to pool funding to save time and to be more efficient,” Miller says. He and other BiSON advocates must educate local city councils, school boards, and other community groups about the network and convince them to dedicate money to it. Miller and his project team have spent many hours attending meetings and on the phone connecting with government officials to drum up support for BiSON connectivity.

More robust Internet connectivity will better support the latest school administration systems and educational software. Teachers are becoming more accustomed to using technology in the classroom, and new apps provide a wider variety of teaching tools. These make it easier, for example, for teachers to tailor programs of study for individual students so that they can learn at their own pace.

However, some new educational software raises data privacy concerns. “In the digital age, vendors can gather personal information on students and market it,” Miller explains. Free apps might require users to enter personal information, such as their e-mail address and date of birth, to gain access. That concerns some parents who fear inappropriate marketing to their children will occur, or that personal data could get into the wrong hands and be misused in some way. Jeffco has a significant number of tech-savvy parents who began raising this issue a few years ago, so Miller had to study the problem and create privacy policies for Jeffco Schools.

“A lot of it comes down to transparency,” he says. “Where is the student information? Who has access to it? How is the data used, shared, and deleted?” In order for a software product to be approved for use by the school system, the vendor must be open about these questions and not collect personal data from students for marketing or research, not disclose data or personally identifiable information, and delete any Jeffco data when the contract is terminated with the district. A dedicated portion of the IT staff, which works with the school system’s legal advisors, reviews software agreements to ensure compliance. They compile a list of approved vendors. If a teacher wants to use an app from a unapproved vendor, he or she must request a review and wait for approval.

“It does slow things down and can be frustrating for teachers,” Miller says. But, the school system has decided that safeguarding privacy is a high priority—one that outweighs potential delays in adopting new software.

With Jeffco Schools at the forefront among school systems for creating data privacy policies, Miller has gained considerable expertise on the issue. Applying that knowledge, he was intimately involved in helping to craft state legislation that would provide a starting point for student data privacy.

In June 2016, the Colorado Student Data Transparency Act was signed into law by Governor John Hickenlooper. The law requires school systems around the state to adopt a formal data privacy policy by December 2017. And, as of August 10, 2016, vendors contracting with schools or educational agencies in Colorado had to contractually agree to comply with certain requirements in order to collect information from students.

Some of the law’s provisions echo healthcare privacy laws. For example, providers must notify educational institutions if a data breach is discovered. In addition, vendors can only share data with subcontractors that comply with the provisions of the law. Also, a data life cycle provision requires the destruction of personal data after a contract ends.

This work on public policy helps to inform Miller’s day-to-day work—as does having children in Jeffco schools. As a concerned parent, he serves on a couple of parent technology advisory committees for individual schools. In that role, he has been involved with many vendor evaluations and negotiations. “Watching a school struggle with issues dealing with vendors gives me a better lens from a county-wide perspective,” Miller says.

A product of Jeffco Schools himself, Miller attended a high school that was one of the few in the county to have a computer lab back when Apple’s first products entered the mass market. After a brief stint in the oil industry, he took a job with Jeffco Schools as a computer tape operator, working on batch runs of administrative applications. He’s been with the school system ever since, rising to chief technology officer ten years ago and chief information officer five years ago.

Few tech leaders have such continuity of service in the same organization, and it gives Miller a deep historic perspective on the evolution of Jeffco Schools’ IT capability. This institutional knowledge is an asset as he guides decisions on new technology investments. It also adds gravitas when he steps into the arena of public policy. As a result, both the state and county benefit in the case of data privacy.