Maryland District Evaluates a Special-Education Management System’s Impact on Its Bottom Line

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Charles County Public Schools in La Plata, Md., is recognized nationally as a leader in technology use. However,our special-education management program was problematic, with homegrown software and piles of paperworkstill being completed by hand. The staff and administrative costs for such an outdated and inefficient system were high and wouldonly continue to get worse. As our student population increased, and compliance with state and federal laws grew more complex,it became increasingly difficult to manage our program without a current technology system that specifically addressed the needs ofmanaging special populations.

When we launched our search for a new special-education management system, we carefully considered how this newtechnology would impact our bottom line — both at the time of purchase and in the future. What would be the total cost of ownership(TCO)? Would we see a return on investment (ROI)? Taking this “business” approach to the search for, and evaluation of, a newtechnology system was intensive and time-consuming. However, we believe the time and energy invested up front saved time andmoney in the long run, as well as eliminated many headaches.

From the outset, it is critical to build a search team with representatives from every department who will be involved in thesystem’s purchase and implementation. We knew if we did not create ownership and support from the ground up, the systemsimply would not work. So, we spent months reviewing and analyzing our needs and brainstorming what we wanted in a newsystem. With the support of our procurement office, we issued a request for proposals with detailed system specifications. Afterreviewing several proposals, we invited five vendors to meet with us and demonstrate their products. We then developed guidelinesto ensure each vendor and product was evaluated according to the same criteria, while giving ourselves the flexibility to ask questionsduring each presentation.

TCO & ROI Considerations

Since TCO was a key consideration, we analyzed direct and indirect costs in hardware, software, technical support and staffdevelopment for each system. Fortunately, we did not have to consider costs for building modifications, as our district wasrecently retrofitted with a converged network where data, voice and video run over the same infrastructure. While assessing TCOcreated more work during the evaluation process, the information was extremely valuable. And because we learned up fronthow much it would cost to purchase and implement the new system, we have had no surprises or hidden costs to date.

Another key consideration was the ROI. We viewed our purchase as an investment rather than an expense, which wouldpay for itself in several ways. The following are a few examples of how the system provides a financial return through savings andincreased funding:

Reduced paperwork burden. We spend a significant amount of time on paperwork and administrative duties related to specialeducation management. By eliminating redundant data entry and paperwork, we can increase the time teachers spend workingwith students. This, in turn, will create a more positive impact on student achievement. In addition to saving time, we can decreaseexpenses related to paper processing and printing by using electronic forms rather than paper. In addition, by ensuring formsare filled out correctly through automated systems, we can improve compliance and avoid state and federal liabilities.

Increased revenue reimbursement. With our paper-based processes and previous software system, we believewe missed services that could have been reimbursed because we could not easily track and access student data. By automaticallytracking all eligible students, however, we can now ensure accurate child count, appropriate placement and full funding. Furthermore, with current and complete documentation, we anticipate we will be able to track services that may have gone unreported and increase Medicaid reimbursement.

Informed decision-making. Our previous management software did not return the data we needed to makeinformed decisions or analyze program effectiveness. With our current system, however, we can create a framework foraccurate staff and resource planning, as well as reduce discrepancies and unnecessary costs by more efficiently monitoringthe services that students receive.

Lessons Learned

We found the evaluation process to be extremely educational. Not only did it give us the opportunity to thoroughly reviewwhat was available for special-education management, it made us even more knowledgeable about what we wantedand what would be the best system for our district. In addition to TCO and ROI, other factors played a role in our decision-making process. For example, it was important that the company we selected had proven successes in other districts,and that its personnel had experience and expertise in special education as well as in technology. By the end of the process, the district found what it had been looking for and selected 4GL School Solutions’ Web-based ENCORE! suite of special-education management solutions (www.4glschools.com). We made our choice based on two factors: the strengths of the product and the people.

Although the process to find a newsystem for special-education managementwas arduous, it was well worth theeffort. There are 2,500 students in ourdistrict’s special-education program.Whenever we encountered a challengeand people said there were five reasonswhy this or that wouldn’t work, my retortwas that there are 2,500 reasons why it hadto work. And it has.

Because we got all of our stakeholderson board up front and communicatedwith everyone throughout the process,we have created excitement about whatthe new system will do for us and ourstudents. In my business, technology isimportant but people make the difference.Watching the reaction of our peopleto this endeavor is very exciting. It is a bigvictory for us, and we earned it.

This article originally appeared in the 05/01/2005 issue of THE Journal.

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