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Dollars That Make Sense

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The tally for outfitting a new high school with technology can reach seven figures in a hurry. Here's how two tech directors met the challenge by spending wisely.

Dollars That Make SenseEQUIPPING A NEW SCHOOL with the best technology can be a challenging endeavor, one filled with hard choices and runaway expenses, but it's a familiar one for Greg Lindner, director of technology at Elk Grove Unified School District. The district, located near Sacramento, CA, has opened 22 new schools since Lindner joined it a decade ago. Most recently, Lindner and his team outfitted Elk Grove's latest addition, Cosumnes Oaks High School, with state-of-the-art technology in time for the school to open its doors last fall to 1,383 students.

The key to making the process go smoothly, according to Lindner, is having a technology planning specialist whose job is to monitor tech-based initiatives and act as a liaison between technology services and the facilities department, which is in charge of the overall construction project. Lindner added the position to his team "after seeing that we had several areas of opportunity for improvement," he says.

Once an Elk Grove principal has been assigned to a new school, which usually happens about a year or two in advance of the opening, the planning specialist and others in the district's IT department participate in school design meetings to gain an understanding of what the instructional objectives of the new campus will be. The group then identifies the minimum technology needs for all new schools. Those are funded as "Priority 1" items in the budget-- the required technology outlay for every new school in the district. Optional "Priority 2" items are funded by site funds or from savings made during the purchase of Priority 1 equipment. Decisions regarding Priority 2 equipment are made at the discretion of the principal, typically in council with department chairs.

The Priority 1 list for Cosumnes Oaks High included three computer labs and a classroom model consisting of a teacher's computer, an analog telephone, an LCD projector, a document camera, and a speaker tied to the computer. On the back end, the list included servers for student and administrative use, printers, and office equipment such as copiers. On the Priority 2 list were digital whiteboards and additional networked printers.

"I didn't feel like we were all alone trying to reinvent the wheel, because I routinely talked with other technology coordinators around the state."

The expectation that the school would place a whiteboard in every classroom gave way to the reality that each department would have to justify the purchase.

"The math department said, 'We use these every day,' and had a great justification for it," Lindner says. "A number of other teachers didn't really see how they could use them. Instead, they went with document cameras, initially considered Priority 2 but moved to the Priority 1 list so that every classroom got one. And the math department got the whiteboards."

To figure out what other specific equipment to buy, Principal Patrick McDougall and his staff had the school set up a prototype room. "About two or three months before they had to make the purchasing decision," recalls Lindner, "they took a classroom and invited in vendors and said, 'Bring your stuff in. Then we'll bring our teachers in to see what works and what doesn't work.'" For a couple of months, teachers who would be moving to the new school would spend time trying out various combinations of equipment. "What they found was that some of the LCD projectors didn't work with some of the multimedia boards. The resolution wasn't high enough."

The price of equipping the new high school with technology came to just over $1.2 million, about 1 percent of the total budgeted construction costs. In making buying decisions, Lindner says he tells his staff, "'You tell me what the best solution is. I don't care what it costs. Don't worry about the cost and how to get it funded.' Otherwise, they go, 'Oh, we can't afford that.' Don't let that constrict what the solutions are. It may seem too expensive today, but over time it may be less in cost."

Unlike Lindner, technology director Shawn Nutting had never been involved in the building of a new school when, three years ago, his employer, Trussville City Schools, broke off from the considerably larger Jefferson County School System in Birmingham, AL. Suddenly, he and his team were faced with not only building a network infrastructure for the existing schools in the new district, but also figuring out how to prepare for the construction of a new flagship high school. The result was the most expensive high school ever built in Alabama: Hewitt-Trussville High School, which opened last October.

Nutting turned for guidance to high schools in the neighboring communities of Mountain Brook, Hoover, and Vestavia Hills. "I didn't feel like we were all alone trying to reinvent the wheel, because I routinely talked with other technology coordinators around the state," he says. "They openly shared, 'Don't buy this,' 'Don't do that,' 'You should do this.'"

Nutting's team decided on a basic classroom outfit that included a teacher laptop, an IP phone, a wireless interactive pad, a mounted LCD projector, a document camera, and an amplifier. Rather than purchase the usually requisite interactive whiteboards, Hewitt-Trussville, which chose to deploy Smart Technologies AirLiner wireless slates instead. Not only did the slates cost less-- $400 each compared to $1,300 apiece for the whiteboards-- but they fit better with the teaching style of the school district. "We're not big on teachers standing in front of the class lecturing," says Nutting. With the slates, the teacher can walk around the classroom, display work to a screen on the wall, and hand the pad to students, who can then share their work.

From a total budget of $74 million to get the new high school built and operating, Nutting spent almost $2 million on the technology side. Although the back-end infrastructure, which cost about $800,000, was essential to supporting a ubiquitous wireless and IP environment, it's also the expenditure he now questions most in hindsight. "We're Cisco everywhere else in the district, so we wanted to go with Cisco," he explains. The problem, according to Nutting, is that once Cisco designates the equipment as "end of life," the company will no longer support it, and the expense of replacing or upgrading the hardware is hefty. For example, the district's network access-control system lasted only a year and a half before Cisco declared it non-supported. "Their answer was, 'If you give another $175,000, we'll get you on the latest,'" Nutting says. "I just don't have those kinds of checks with a school system."

A choice he's much happier with is the decision to go with a voice over IP phone system, which cost about $150,000. Now IT staff can take on phone support without adding personnel. "Once we go into configuration in setting up the phone, that's the last my guys have to deal with phone issues," he says. "When an employee changes, you change the name and you're done. That's worth the extra bit of money we had to pay."

To choose well in outfitting a new high school with technology requires both an understanding of the educational mission and knowledge of the equipment being considered for deployment. It also involves a bit of professional heartache, when district technologists know a better solution is available but just not affordable. One major planned expenditure that never came to fruition for Hewitt-Trussville was a room full of driver's ed simulators. "It's not just some PlayStation driving game," says Nutting. "It gives tons of feedback: 'You're following too close. You didn't look over your left shoulder when you pulled out.'" Ultimately, he says, the cost of $600,000 for 30 units couldn't be justified.

That doesn't mean sidelined initiatives will never come to pass. As Elk Grove's Lindner points out, budgets are fluid. He maintains wishlists for his district in the event that funding becomes available unexpectedly. "A lot of times people don't have their list, and the money goes in a hurry."

Dian Schaffhauser is a freelance writer based in Nevada City, CA.

This article originally appeared in the 02/01/2009 issue of THE Journal.

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