B.C. schools turn student ID cards into payment tools

The days of blowing the lunch money at the corner video arcade may soon be at an end for a growing number of high school students, thanks to a Web-based, hosted system developed by a Vancouver company.

First National Technologies Inc.’s FirstStudent Solution turns student ID cards into smart cards for collecting data, generating reports and carrying out financial transactions, such as buying lunch in the school cafeteria.

By moving cafeteria purchases to smart cards, parents can make sure their money ends up where it’s supposed to, officials said.

Early adopters among B.C. schools include two in the Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows school district, Westview Secondary School and Samuel Robertson Technical Secondary School, according to the school district’s communications officer, Seamus Nesling.

The system is expected to benefit both parents and schools, he said in an interview.

“It’s a whole lot less work for the clerical staff, keeping track of it, and handling people’s money,” Nesling said. “It’s certainly more convenient for parents in terms of sending their kids to school with cheques or cash.”

The smart card system was easily added to the cafeterias’ existing cash registers, he said.

As more schools adopt the system, the school district believes it will save money.

“The thinking is that once it gets going, everyone will see the benefit of it and it will become more widespread,” Nesling added.

According to First National Technology chief technical officer Dana Woods, the system can easily save school districts thousands of dollars annually. The system makes use of the ID number on existing student cards, either in the form of a bar code or a magnetic strip.

“We can turn that ID card into a virtual debit card,” Woods said.

Using internet banking, automatic teller machines or by going to a bank in person, parents can transfer money on to the card. This means that parents would no longer need to give their children cash for the school cafeteria.

“If you were a student and you were going through the cafeteria, they could purchase their product just as they normally would,” he said. “We put devices in that cafeteria where they can swipe that card and put a PIN number in, exactly as if you were buying groceries at the grocery store with your debit card.”

Besides schools in Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows, the system has been adopted by several schools in West Vancouver and Port Coquitlam in B.C., and by schools in Ontario’s York Catholic District school board and the London District Catholic school board, Woods said.

The hosted system is provided to schools on a subscription basis. The cost for a typical school is between $3,000 and $5,000 annually, which is far less than the likely savings, he said.

Parents using the system are charged $10 annually. For that fee, parents can log on to a dedicated Web site, where they can learn how much their children spent at the cafeteria or paid in school fees that day.

Principals are reporting annual savings in the thousands or tens of thousands of dollars for each school, he said.

From the viewpoint of school districts, an important use of FirstStudent Solution has to do with “loanable assets.”

Students borrow textbooks, band instruments and laptops, among other things — and not all are returned at the end of the school year.

“The vast majority of schools don’t really know what they lose,” Woods said.

FirstStudent gives schools a method to track these items.

For instance, by scanning both a textbook’s barcode and the student’s ID card at the beginning of the term, schools will know exactly which copy of which book the student has.

“Then, at the end of each semester, when everything is due to be returned, we obviously know who brought their book back, but the most important part is, we know who did not,” Woods said.

Schools can then approach the parents of students who haven’t returned books.

FirstStudent Solution ties in with schools’ existing student information systems, which contains details of students, courses, teaches and similar information.

“We interface with that so that at the end of the school year, we know for sure that, let’s say, 90 Math 30 books got issued in September, but at the end of June we’ve only got 82,” Woods said.

The same system could tell the school that, say, 120 students will be enrolling in Math 30 in the fall.

“It gives schools the tools to do some resource planning,” he said.

By cutting administration costs, the system can also save schools about five per cent of the various course, activity and trip fees that they collect. For a 1,000-student high school, these fees can total as much as $1 million annually.

“We virtually guarantee that we can save them at least five per cent of what their cash flow is,” Woods said.

First National Technologies is a privately-held, privately-funded Vancouver firm.

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