Spending money saves time at Edgewood ISD

By: | Issue: February, 2015
February 5, 2015

Last summer local news stories appeared about two astute taxpayers who discovered Edgewood Independent School District administrators are paid more than their peers despite working in one of the poorest districts in Texas. I run the district’s information technology department and I could have told those folks that the $2,000 in extra earnings some administrators make is being returned to rate payers several hundred times over each year through a project those same administrators are working hard on.

In defense of the taxpayers, Edgewood was spending more than it should, but on its paperworkÑnot its people. Running public schools is all about paperwork and when a district grows 34 percent in 10 years, as we have, the people keeping track of it allÑthe administratorsÑget swamped. And as our two astute taxpayers bear out, we have to account for every cent we spend.

Every new hire involves reams of documents that are often reviewed by a half dozen or more staffers and officials. Every equipment purchase must document who is requesting it, why, who has authorized it, where the money is coming from, and a copy of the check eventually cut to pay for it. Then there is the paperwork and process involved in recording and maintaining health benefits, student and teacher evaluations, curriculum changes, and extra-curricular programs.

Districts can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars keeping track of it all and still not keep up. Our Accounts Payable department was so behind in processing invoices that Apple Computers suspended deliveries. In a few cases Human Resources was keeping staff on salary for months after they retired. Perhaps the worst problem was that Edgewood had skilled administrators dedicating several hours each week to moving paperwork back and forth when their job is to keep up with the meteoric growth of our district.

To truly fix these problems I knew Edgewood needed an enterprise content management system: a centralized, computerized document management system that automates as much of the record keeping as possible in as many of the district’s departments and schools as possible. I also knew installing such a system can be very disruptive, requiring the commitment of an entire district and most importantly the backing of senior staff and elected officials. Fortunately, I had the latter when I started at Edgewood. The former took a little more convincing.

After considering several products that might do the job, I turned my attention to Laserfiche, the enterprise content management system already at work in the Human Resources department, storing various personnel records. I knew HR was only using about 10 percent of the system’s capacity. I was not so sure how the other 90 percent could untangle the thicket of processes and paperwork in HR still being done manually, much as it had been for the past 50 years. More uncertain still was how easily the system could be rolled out to other departments throughout the district.

First, we automated new hire onboarding, which can involve a half dozen or more decision makers often taking multiple actions. While the decision makers must still be involved, we wanted to automate processing and filing the records required to document those decisions. It took a few months over the summer, but we did exactly that and now the paperwork involved in each new hire requires only a few hours’ work where it used to be drawn out over days and even months. The successful automation of onboarding made rolling the new system out to our athletic department much easier. Each year, the process of signing students up for school sports involved managing 4,000 16-page paper packets, which were then filed in manila folders and stored in a continually expanding collection of metal filing cabinets. Using the business process automation functionality included with our enterprise content management system, we automated the bulk of the sports sign-up process so athletic department staff can review and approve student applications from smartphones and tablets in the field, or from their office PCs.

When other departments saw the work we had done in HR and Athletics they wanted to get their records into the new system as well and take advantage of the automations we were achieving. Since that time, paper-based processes in Accounts Payable, Payroll, Security Technology and the Pupil Personnel departments, to name a few, have all been similarly automated. Accounts Payable was a particular coup as 2,800 purchases per month are now routed automatically from purchase request to automatic archiving and indexing of a PDF record of that purchase.

We’ve been able to build notifications and feedback loops into those workflows so when a decision maker has a document needing attention, he is automatically notified through an email. When such a notification goes without response for too long, the previous staffer to act on the document is notified of the delay. In A/P we’ve built an online dashboard showing which invoices have not been paid in 30 days, 30-60 days, or 90+ days. (Needless to say, Apple has resumed deliveries of its devices.)

But IT never rests and as I looked for new ways to further streamline these processes, I discovered another way to enable departments to eliminate one of the last and most stubborn vestiges of paper in our offices: forms.

In our districtÑas many other public school districtsÑthere are hundreds of forms used for everything and anything. Using the web forms functionality in our ECM system, staff can now create, complete and approve the forms they work with every dayÑright from their mobile devices or PCs. These forms are a seamless part of the automated workflows we have been building for the past two years, creating a truly paperless process from start to finish.

As Edgewood ISD’s completely paperless philosophy is turning into everyday realities in ever more nuanced areas of administrative operations, it is becoming increasingly clear that the total savings to the district each year is probably reaching deep into six figures.. It is still too early to give a precise return-on-investment for this effort, however copier paper orders have been cut by 50 percent while copier ink purchases have been reduced by $250,000 annually.

The costs are easier to calculate, and they are measured as much in growing pains and disruption as they are in budget line items. We had to upgrade the capacity of our Laserfiche, as more district staff depend on it. Those staff needed to be trained on the system’s use and functions, so we created a new position to serve as the liaison between departments and IT to facilitate and maintain that training. We have also started holding monthly meetings to keep administration informed of IT activities and goals.

As the majority of administration departments have adopted electronic workflows and forms, tablets and televisions are now required for conducting all administrative meetings. Smartphones and tablets are now playing a vital role in day-to-day operations as staff can access district-related documents anywhere, anytime. The superintendent is particularly pleased as he can now sign off on dozens of documents he must authorize each week wherever and whenever he wants thanks to the mobile technology we have deployed. Integrating mobile content management keeps processes flowing even when he is not in the office.

At the same time, security options built into the automated workflows restrict staff access to only those documents they are authorized to view and work on. That authorized access can also be changed automatically at any point during the workflow as added information may bring greater access restrictions. The system also automatically creates a record of who accesses which documents and when. The automated indexing has greatly pleased internal and third-party auditors who can now customize document searches using a broad array of search parameters.

In two years we have automated 200 administrative operations in 33 departments. Pleasing staff in those departments as we overhaul the operations they have worked with since Day 1 can be challenging, but once they make the switch, they “get it” and they invariably love it. We have not yet moved the new system into the curriculum side of district operations, but we have the transformation process down pat and know our teachers will realize that electronic workflow and forms can work their magic anywhere.

The real lesson we’ve learned is that spending a little extra on technology in the short run can save a great deal of their money in the long term.

Adam Galvan is director of Information Systems at Edgewood ISD.