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The Houston County Schools system, which is still recovering from a criminal malware attack that downed servers in July and delayed the start of classes, put off moving on a costly plan to deter future cyber-attacks until the board’s lawyer can review it.

The contract with the forensic digital cyber-security firm requires a $15,000 on-boarding cost initially and would cost the board $12,800 a month for a two-phase development of a cyber-security program for up to two years. The plan includes a provision that allows the board to cancel the contract with a 30-day notice if it’s dissatisfied with the service.

“It’s a very expensive service wherever you go,” Technology Director Bob Blalock said. “We’ve got to do something because the possibility of entities being hit a second time once they were hit like we were is very likely.”

Brent Panell, CEO and co-founder for ControlAltProtect, said the company is not looking to turn a profit with the offer, but priced the product at an estimated cost to his firm. He encouraged the board to move forward quickly with early prevention efforts, whether the school board chose his firm or another.

“You were not ransomed, but it’s inevitable once you’ve been hit, you’re a target. It’s a mathematical certainty,” Panell told the board.

Dozens of school districts around the country have been affected by malware attacks since the start of the 2019 school year. Some have proved costly. The Rockville Centre school district in New York recently doled out $100,000 in a ransomware attack.

“Quite frankly, we have not targeted schools because we know schools are limited in funding,” Panell said. “The sophistication of the team I’m blessed to have at my company is well-suited and prepared, and we are sure what we have diagnosed here for you is unequivocal… to ward off attacks and in the event if a hacker or hackers returned, we are well prepared for that.”

If implemented, the proposed plan would cost the Houston County school board $168,600 for the first year and $153,600 for remaining years.

Board Chairman Vince Wade said he has concerns after speaking with other professionals about the firm’s lack of experience in education and about a clause toward the end of the contract for “schedule B add-ons.” Panell said those are usually just recommendations that could include segmenting the WiFi or other practices that would protect the school district.

Blalock said the school system has already spent roughly $75,000 on overtime labor, contracted help, and new equipment.

New computers for all 450 teachers cost $350,000 and were installed with appropriate software this past week. The board was already considering the large purchase for next fiscal year, but the Alabama State Department of Education allowed them to purchase the line item earlier with emergency funding.

The technology department, Blalock said, is still looking at security equipment at the school campuses, including cameras and door-locking mechanisms which are still not working properly because of issues with two servers.

The Child Nutrition Program has lunch accounts back online so parents can deposit money.

Other action items:

>> Approved the hire of a transportation supervisor after 10 months of the position being vacant.

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