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Forging a Bond

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How the relationship between one school district and its surrounding communityhas produced a string of winning ed tech ballot initiatives.

Technology FundingROUND ROCK INDEPENDENT School District has been on the winning end of more elections in the state of Texas than any group outside of the Bush family. Voters in Round Rock’s surrounding community of Austin passed school bonds in 1991, 1994, 1997, and 2000, and last November affirmed the district’s entire, four-part bond referendum.Round Rock’s only loss came in 2005.

The 1994 bond enabled the district to open an elementary school and a middle school, as well as fund the renovation of a high school to include telephones, televisions, and a local area network with at least one networked PC in every classroom. The 1997 bond used the renovated high school’s success as a rationale for putting computers, phones, and televisions in every classroom at every school; $22 million out of the bond’s total $99 million went to technology.

The 2000 bond got a fiber network installed throughout the district; $38 million out of $200 million went to technology. And last November, voters passed all four propositions of the district’s bond referendum.

At the command of this string of victories has been Ed Zaiontz, Round Rock’s executive director of information services. He toils in support of the mission of the district’s educational technology department: “to ensure the seamless integration of technology into the curriculum and foster acquisition of 21st century skills.” To that end, Zaiontz helps coordinate bond efforts, at least the parts that involve technology.

How does he explain Round Rock’s ability to persuade local residents to support the district? Fittingly, he says the district does its homework. Zaiontz works closely with a district-sponsored citizens committee, more than 100 strong, which studies and recommends technology requests to be included in any bond issues. A subcommittee, Districtwide Projects, continually conducts feasibility studies: What is needed in schools and in classrooms? How can we modify what we have? Who can provide us with the best solutions? And how do we keep up with growth?

The district is expanding, and expanding fast. During the past five years, its student population—about 22 percent Hispanic, 10 percent African-American, and 58 percent Caucasian— has increased by more than 20 percent, and there seems to be no letup in the near future. As Zaiontz says,“We’ve got schools that are bursting at the seams.”

It helps, of course, that the community of Round Rock is by composition naturally receptive to technology. It’s the home of Dell, as well as a regional office of State Farm. Such companies make natural partners for the school district, especially for the educational technology department.

However, even if residents are inclined to support the district, they still need to be convinced. Once a bond issue is green-lighted by the school board, it is scrutinized by the public, with Zaiontz and his team providing as much information as they can to potential voters. One way they’ve done this is creating “digital stories,” available on the district’s website. The videos show students at elementary, middle, and high school levels using technology—conducting research on the internet, participating in classwide assessments, writing essays, communicating with the teacher and each other, and using different kinds of graphics to understand and communicate what they’re learning.

Round Rock Is Not the Lone Star

A SECOND TEXAS DISTRICT HAS ENJOYEDITS OWN RUN OF ELECTION-DAY SUCCESSES.

Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District in Houston has beentreated well by voters the past several years. Cy-Fair has had bonds passed in 1998, 2001, and 2004, the latter for roughly $713 million, about $57 million of which was for “instructional technology needs.” Every school in the district has virtually the same resources. “We’re big on equity,” says Harold Rowe, associate superintendent of technology and school services.

Cy-Fair has goals similar to the ones at Round Rock Independent School District: accommodate growth, maintain student/computer ratios throughout all schools, replace aging systems and components, and increase access to technology. It too has been experiencing growth—from fewer than 75,000 students in 2003-2004 to almost 92,000 in 2006-2007, to a projected 110,000 five years hence. Like Round Rock, Cy-Fair has a community-based group of 75 members that evaluates needs. “We believe firmly in a broad-based community process,” says Rowe.

“Being visionary is important,” he continues, “but being practical is as important.”

Preceding the November 2006 bond vote, a group of 12 committee members made more than 100 presentations to clubs, organizations, and individuals over a period of about nine months. The results speak for themselves.

Zaiontz tries to stay one step ahead. For example, the entire citizens committee did not support data projectors in every classroom. So, says Zaiontz, “now we have to prove that that type of technology has become an essential piece of equipment in the schools.” Once the district can get a system used on one campus and show its merit, then it can reasonably argue that all campuses should have it. “Each time we have a bond election,” says Zaiontz, “we try to raise the bar.” The tough part is making sure that whatever the district gets is used; otherwise, it suffers a loss in credibility: “If you go too quickly, it’s like you didn’t plan properly; it you wait too long, you get overcrowding.”

That’s where the planning comes in. Zaiontz talks about being “evidence-based.” If the committees and the subcommittees are diligent, then they can gauge not only the schools’ needs today, but also what the needs are likely to be in the years to come. Then, of course, they need to assess what’s available today, and what will be in the years to come, to meet those needs. Ultimately, it’s an effort that takes place on many fronts:

  • participation from a broad base of the community
  • partnerships with local businesses and organizations
  • continual assessment of needs and markets
  • strategies that give voters comprehensive information
  • a balance between the visionary and the practical

In 2006, the whole process was put to perhaps its steepest test when the district went to the polls with a comprehensive, four-part bond referendum. The bond allowed Round Rock to protect its investment in technology, including refreshing existing computers, expanding the wireless local area network on each campus, and upgrading hardware and software to central servers and applications.

A separate part of the referendum enabled the district to extend the technology available to students and staff, including notebook computers, data projectors, interactive whiteboards, and digital cameras. Also accounted for were special projects such as a disaster recovery plan, a digital curriculum storage system, an online assessment system, and districtwide access to a cable TV channel.

Finally, the referendum sought to provide technology training and support. The funds came out of other sources, including state technology money, at $30 per student (bonds can't fund training, only capital purchases and installation).

The total cost: $23,220,300. The final tally: All four propositions passed 2-to-1.

Neal Starkman is a freelance writer based in Seattle.

This article originally appeared in the 04/01/2007 issue of THE Journal.

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