At this time of year, school districts are nearing the end of their annual budget cycles. While the annual budget process is never an enjoyable experience, I think I can say with confidence that most districts face increasing challenges each year.
Whether it’s the increase in the number of charter schools within a district’s boundary that cause a decrease district revenue, overall decreases in state funding, property tax caps that impact district revenue, or changes in the federal E-rate program, there are numerous ways in which district funding sources are shrinking.
From an IT perspective, this translates into doing more with less. Let’s face it, almost every initiative in our world today has a technology component and/or relies on the support of technology. While we are increasingly asked to support more, we must provide that support with diminished resources, such as less funding or fewer IT staffers.
A strong IT governance process is a necessary component to ensure that technology initiatives align to district priorities. However, it is a CIO’s or a CTO’s responsibility to develop a budget to support district priorities. In fact, budgeting and maximizing the IT annual budget must be one of the CIO’s main priorities in order to develop and maintain a successful, high-achieving district IT organization.
Technology supports many facets of school district activities. Students utilize digital tools to enhance their learning opportunities; teachers receive professional development on integrating technology into their instruction and on expanding their pedagogy to advance the use of technology in their classrooms. ERP systems that promote integrated business functions to enhance the productivity and efficiency of business processes are required for successful organizations; the network and infrastructure must be able to support both school business and classrooms.
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Does it seem impossible to finance all of this? While challenging, it can be accomplished by planning, researching and strategizing. Below are three suggestions to include in your budget approach:
- Market your IT organization. Does this sound crazy? It shouldn’t. Most people take the technology they use every day for granted. They don’t think about how they can access Wi-Fi, for instance. Teachers may not consider how the Wi-Fi in their classrooms can easily support 30-40 devices at one time. District leaders may not realize just how many devices your small IT team supports—from thousands to tens of thousands. They may not recognize that with a massive number of devices, a pedagogical shift in teaching and learning is imperative to support students’ device use to advance their learning opportunities and 21st-century skills.
Let’s not forget about the seamless procure-to-pay process that an ERP system delivers. A few keystrokes will allow a purchase requisition to be created, departmental funds to be facilitated and workflow approvals to be initiated—all culminating in the creation of a purchase order that is electronically submitted to your vendor.
These are just a few examples of the services that a district IT division delivers. If you unpack each of these examples, you will see just how reliant your district is on your IT organization. So take the time to remind them. Develop periodic electronic newsletters to showcase what’s happening in IT. Prepare executive summaries to highlight the current state of your IT division. Sponsor events to allow teachers and students to address what’s happening in their classrooms—not only to celebrate teachers and students, but also to convey IT’s connection to the classroom.
- Do your homework. Many grants that may be available to your district also support technology initiatives. It’s your job to become educated on all available funding sources. Title I and Title IV grants may fund technology when initiatives focus on outcomes for students. The federal Every Student Succeeds Act also contains edtech provisions. The key is to do your homework and research all funding opportunities available to you in partnership with your district’s academic priorities.
- Cloud computing, and services with recurring costs. Many districts are making the shift to cloud service solutions. With this shift, there are budgetary impacts. The funding needed for on-prem solutions differs from the funding for cloud computing. The annual recurring costs of cloud providers will require a change in IT funding strategy. If your district’s ROI analysis results in migrating to cloud solutions, your district must accept that cloud provider costs must be considered the same as any utility costs and cannot be decreased during challenging fiscal times.
Finally, don’t forget to start your budget planning process early. The best time to begin is as soon as your current budget has been approved.
Annmarie Lehner is CIO for the Rochester City School District in New York.