Automation | Feature

Form Factor: Improving Processes at a California School District

The goal is to improve processes by converting form-heavy work into digital workflows. But as this California school district is discovering, finding the right technology is really only the first step.

With 32,000 students and 2,500 staff members, the Visalia Unified School District in central California spends a fortune in printed forms--everything from classroom worksheets to accident reports to disciplinary reports. To keep up with that work, the district runs a duplication and printing shop. To request a print job, the staff member or teacher fills out a multi-part district printing request in which they provide the specs, black and white, color, two-sided, or the like. They retain one copy and hand in the rest to a site secretary or the duplicating center. Each form includes a tracking number so that when they call to find out the status of a print job, the center staff members know which project the person is calling about. That form all by itself, used 12,000 to 15,000 times a year, costs the district about $10,000 a year. Add in associated labor, and the price is even more painful.

Al Foytek, director of business information systems at Visalia Unified, is looking to eradicate that form because, after all, it represents all that's wrong with many school district processes: They're manual, and they waste paper. "Large districts use thousands of forms. You're spending anywhere from 75 cents to a dollar if the form has five or six parts, less if it's a simpler form. But cumulatively you're spending a lot of money just on the physical forms," he lamented. "You also have the labor of moving the form from place to place and tracking it. It has its limitations. You have no way to put a comment on a multi-part form. We put stickies on it. We send it back and forth several times. Eventually, it's done, but it's not efficient."

Foytek said he believes the district can save a lot of time, work, and expense by automating the processes that are form-intensive.

Finding the Right Tool for Going Paperless
He said when he began considering his options for tackling the reworking of the print request form problem, he knew there were a few things he didn't want: "I didn't want to use disparate tools and interface them myself. I didn't want to have to do it with programming. I didn't want to maintain custom programming. I didn't want to do it physically by moving files around and going from one toolset to another, which is the way a lot of tools are out there right now."

Foytek settled on PerfectForms from a company of the same name. This application, which can be subscribed to as an online service or hosted on site, provides the tools necessary for designing forms that can be filled out on the computer and transmitted digitally. The forms can include intelligence, such as specifications. If the person fills out a request that is within a given limit, for example, it can be automatically sent to one person; if the amount surpasses the limit, it can be shuttled to another person.

Better yet, said Foytek, "You don't need to be a programmer to use PerfectForms." However, the user who sets up forms does need to understand Boolean logic in order to specify limits, calculations, and optional questions or fields. The user can also set up a workflow graphically through a drag and drop interface to define who the form will go to as it moves through the approval process. As the form moves through the workflow, the person who submitted it receives notifications via e-mail to tell them what stage the request is in. Those who use the forms get to them through a Web-based portal.

In November 2010 the vendor released a version of its software that includes K-12-specific templates for school safety checklists, accident reports, incident handling, and other common form categories. These can be tweaked by the user.

"'PerfectForms' is a misnomer for the product we are using since it is not limited to forms," Foytek noted. "[It] has a nice toolset to automate school administrative workflow processes." He's sold district leaders on the multiple benefits to pursuing the paperless form approach.

First, the form no longer has to be stored in a file cabinet that requires real estate. It can be stored digitally in cheap storage and quickly searched and retrieved as needed.

Plus, the use of a system such as PerfectForms provides a way for the district to compile reports on the efficiency of processes, the use of services, and other information that would be challenging if not impossible to gather any other way.

In the same way, digital forms provide a kind of knowledgebase. "Forms capture important, pertinent process information for posterity like where to charge, who approves, and a myriad of things, including preplanned, process analysis information, which can help to improve the process," Foytek said.

The automation of processes is also becoming increasingly important in satisfying audit requirements and legal information needs, he added. "When you need to produce all related information to a particular case quickly, there is nothing like and SQL query to get it done," he said. "This could save many hours of poring over files in warehouses to try and gather all related facts and forms, if you still have them at all."

Where Processes Change, Expect Slow Adoption
Although the software hasn't paid off yet, he said he anticipates a three-year payback simply through automating the print shop request form. That will cover the investment in PerfectForms software and the new server used for hosting the application.

In the meantime, Foytek and his team of two analysts have identified about a hundred other processes the district could also automate with its new tool. The current focus is coming up with ways to help teachers and school staff so that they can spend their time helping students rather than doing paperwork.

He evoked the example of a principal who may have a rush on a particular task. "They need it now, so they spend a half hour of their time to drive over to the district offices to get the forms, fill them out, and walk through the process. That kind of thing goes away when you implement a system like this."

Or in the classroom: "If the teacher has a child who has acted out, the teacher must quickly write up what's going on. Then the teacher has to give [the discipline notice] to the child to take to the assistant principal or whoever is handling discipline. Sometimes the child gets there; sometimes they don't," Foytek pointed out. "If the process were automated, the notice would be on everybody's desktop as soon as [the teacher] hit the submit button on the screen. Everybody would be notified."

Or, since principals and assistant principals are outfitted with handheld devices such as iPhones and Blackberries, they'd be notified immediately by those means. "They want to know. They'd make time to get back and meet the child, so it could be handled right then."

Of course, since every school in the district seems to have its own version of a discipline notice--some with three steps, some with four or five steps--Foytek said he expects a long haul to get agreement from school participants on a form that most schools believe they'll be able to use.

"We don't want to usurp their authority to do things the way they do," he explained. "We may not get something that will work for everybody. Maybe we'll have one for grade schools, one for middle schools, and one for high schools. And, although we can copy a form in PerfectForms, it's really the process that we follow administratively behind it that's laborious. That will be the limiting factor in this."

While several sites at the district are currently running pilot processes for the print shop request form project, the business information systems team is also rolling out a new pilot for transportation requests, such as for athletics and field trips. An important aspect of that particular process is the need to link a given trip request to the financial system of the district so that the funds required for each request is available to pay for trip costs as the bills roll in.

Foytek, who years ago introduced the first e-mail system into the district, as well as the first computer network, said he sees these types of initiatives as just the latest generation of productivity activities the district needs to undertake. "But we're doing it very slowly," he said. Getting rid of manual processes as much as possible is a shift in the routine, "and it's not an easy thing to do. We've had a long time to adapt to paper and it'll take years just learning to adapt our processes to other tools."