How 3 ed-tech leaders will help their districts avoid the ESSER fiscal cliff

IT leaders should be assessing every dollar spent to sustain programs when ESSER expires.
By: | June 21, 2022
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Ashley Cowger intends to help Indianapolis Public Schools avoid falling off the ESSER funding cliff by scrutinizing every dollar the district spends on technology. Cowger, the executive director of strategy and integration, rebuilds her annual spending plan through a process called “zero-dollar budgeting.” Which means she literally starts from scratch every year.

She and her team have now figured out how to sustain a lot of the costs her district incurred during COVID, Cowger says. “Leaders should realize there isn’t a need to keep everything they had or do things the same way they did before,” Cowger says. “They shouldn’t just carry costs because they’d always had them.”

She’s projected spending for the next five years and beyond to sustain the hardware costs of going 1-to-1. She also boosted cybersecurity, adding AI programs that can spot threats and attacks earlier and identify users who are more likely to put the district at risk by clicking on phishing attempts or sharing personal information. To offset those costs, she saved millions by discontinuing academic software that wasn’t being used. The district saved another a few million by implementing strict technology spending standards that require review and approval of all hardware, software and data-related purchase requests.

Cowger encourages other IT and district leaders to critically assess every aspect of spending by learning the zero-dollar budgeting process so they can make more strategic changes over time. “To be transformational, you have to understand where your resources are going and how they’re being tied up,” Cowger says.

A creative search for funding

If the IT department is not preparing for the ESSER fiscal cliff by partnering with academic and financial leaders, that district risks taking a hard financial fall. At Portland Public Schools in Oregon, Chief Technology Officer Don Wolff has been working with the district’s chief financial officer and academic leaders to determine how to sustain initiatives launched during and prior to the pandemic.

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Wolff and the CIO are exploring new funding streams because even with ESSER and a $1.2 billion bond passed in 2020, Portland Public Schools will have to make adjustments when COVID relief expires—unless the federal government provides new rounds of funding. Wolff considers more federal assistance essential because schools have taken on social services such as health care, summertime nutrition, daycare and preschool. “The cliff is rushing at us,” Wolff says. “We’re lobbying folks at the state and national level to figure out how funding can be extended in the manner public K-12’s deserve.”

But collaboration only works if all administrators “open up their sphere of influence” and share information and data. “Districts that aren’t looking three to five years ahead are going to get caught when the funding stream goes away,” Wolff says. “We are having those conversations now about what’s going to be affected by this cliff and how do we start mitigating now instead of later.” For instance, one of the district’s main ESSER-funded programs—expanded summer school—already has an end date. It will only offer the programs this year and next to help students recover learning time lost to the pandemic’s disruptions.

Portland’s bond covered expenses for devices and connectivity that allowed the district to launch its first 1-to-1 program, which administrators had to do in a hurry during the lockdown, Wolff says. The bond will also support the district’s first major curriculum adoption in 20 years. Teachers and instructional coaches will play a key role in determining the bests uses of technology to “enhance and extend” classroom instruction. “Teachers got a lot of PD out of what we’ve been through the last few years,” Wolff says “Hopefully, the upcoming school year will allow teachers to breathe and utilize skills they have learned.”

Sharing your vision for ed-tech

ESSER funding has helped leaders of San Antonio ISD in Texas stretch the spending power of a $1.4 billion bond measure passed in 2020. Those two funding streams have allowed Chief Information Technology Officer Kenneth Thompson to launch a 1-to-1 program and develop a plan to sustain network infrastructure and the distribution of devices to students for the next four to five years.


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ESSER funding has so far been solely dedicated to iPads and Chromebooks and peripherals. Thompson is hoping to get approval to use ESSER funds to help the district build out its own LTE network to bring the internet to more students’ homes. But due to state budget cuts, there are some financial hurdles ahead for San Antonio ISD and many other districts. “It’s going to be tight,” Thompson says. “If it wasn’t for the bond dollars, we’d be in a bad place with ESSER running out.”

The district has been providing student devices for free but after having gone 1-to-1, Thompson is seeking approval to impose a small maintenance fee to cover lost power cords and repairs such as damaged screens. Right now, about 100 devices come in for some type of repair each week. The 1-to-1 initiative has also forced Thompson to update his department’s inventory procedures. He and his team will conduct some practice inventory exercises this summer to keep track of all devices, particularly when students leave the district.

Going forward, another priority for Thompson will be strengthening his relationship with other departments, particularly in academics and operations. “We’re working cross-functionally to assure the instructional program aligns with the tools we’re rolling out,” Thompson says. “You have to have the same vision and the same drive—if you don’t, you’re going in three different directions.”


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