Follow the Money


Federal largesse only goes so far. So to support their technology programs, districtsare pursuing funding sources in the state, local, corporate, and taxpayer ranks.

Technology Funding THERE'S AN OLD ANTI-WAR bumper stickerthat reads, "It will be a great day when our schools get allthe money they need and the Air Force has to hold a bakesale to buy a bomber."

If anything, that day seems even further away, what with schools needing ever more money to obtain technology that will keep their students competitive. Bake sales are just not going to cut it.

As Wayne Hartschuh, the executive director of the Delaware Center for Educational Technology, explains, as a systemic provider of funding, the federal budget is the only option, "so technology often competes with other things that need to be funded. Technology, in many cases, takes a back seat to other priorities." So why are some districts struggling with the issue while others seemingly have it under control? One answer: imagination.

"I've been amazed at the way some districts are funding their initiatives," says Cathy Poplin, deputy associate superintendent for educational technology at the Arizona Department of Education. "We had one small, urban district sell a piece of land to fund its 1-to-1 initiative. That was about 10 years ago and they're still reaping the benefits."

Poplin adds that some districts are finding out how flexible the rules of federal funding programs can be. For example, Title V, Part A— "innovation" funding—can be used for technology, she says. And in qualifying rural areas, Title VI, Part B, funds can be applied. "School districts are also blending money, seeing how funds can be used for technology," Poplin says. "They're just getting smarter about how to use federal funding."

When federal grants still aren't enough and state legislation isn't filling the gaps, a number of school districts are looking for—and finding—viable alternatives.

"Many of our school districts are not looking at federal funding solely. They're taking local money, state money, foundation money, any grant program or opportunity," says Monica Beglau, director of the eMINTS (Enhancing Missouri's Instructional Networked Teaching Strategies) National Center, a national nonprofit organization that offers professional development programs for instructors, based at the University of Missouri.

One example, she notes, is a small school district in Missouri that applied for and won a Hewlett-Packard grant that would pay for tablet computers and 10 digital cameras. In addition, the district applied for and won a state grant and a separate independent grant for science and technology. "They had been applying for grants for five years with no luck," she says. "But by taking the applications and looking at the reader comments and then reworking the applications, this year they will receive all of them."

When discussing alternative funding methods with school districts, Beglau says national foundations are unfortunately becoming less of a source for technology grants. "Many of the foundations, even though they may have a reputation as national organizations, are fairly specific in what locale they will fund." Also, Beglau says, national foundations have moved beyond the idea of equipping schools, which was their focus about five years ago. "Today they are looking to a different mission."

Hartschuh explains that sometimes the trick is in allocating funds, especially with grant money. "Sometimes you can get larger grants that include a technology [component] and specify that a certain amount be allocated to [buying] technology. That's how you can get things put into place—make it part of a bigger grant."

According to Palmer Pierson, field account executive at solution provider CDW-G, there is only one consistent source of support. "I think the only permanent [way] is going out to the taxpayers and parents," he says. "Referendums in particular can be used by IT departments to plan for not just replacing existing technology, but also jump-starting their technology based on what's coming down the road."

Indeed, referendums, tax levies, and bond issues are increasingly being used to fund technology projects, but Hartschuh notes that a community's acceptance of tax increases for additional school funding is cyclical.

"We had one small, urban district sell a piece ofland to fund its 1-to-1 initiative. That was about 10years ago and they're still reaping the benefits."
—Cathy Poplin, Arizona Department of Education

"We've been in a funding cycle," he says. "Ten or 12 years ago, school districts couldn't get one referendum passed, but then all of a sudden everything was passing. Now, within the last few years, referendums are having a harder time getting passed. We're on the downswing now."

Hartschuh adds that bond issues should be used for major projects and not for the purchase of computer equipment. "Philosophically, I have a hard time selling a 20-year bond for a computer with a seven-year lifespan."

An increasingly popular option is leasing. According to Poplin, the opportunity to regularly update equipment has sparked a trend in this direction. "It gives the districts a hardware refresh every few years," she says. "It then becomes an operational expense."

Pierson concurs: "I see many schools open to leasing. They are taking technology that typically they'd own for five to seven years and instead doing fair market value leases, which allow them to have more technology sooner. They can equip an entire school and three years later turn it in and do it all over again."

That approach has worked well for St. Charles Community Unit School District 303 in Illinois, says CIO John Reichling. "Over 60 percent of the approximately 3,000 district computers were over six years old, and I started in my position with a budget that would only allow for a few hundred systems to be purchased," he says. "If I chose to direct this funding using a purchasing model, the district would have been in even worse shape the following school year." Through leasing, the district shifted from depending on onetime referendums to fund desktop computer replacements, to building the replacement costs into the baseline budget as an annual expenditure. This approach is workable if the school district can regularly count on the money to pay for the lease.

"I am constantly asked, ‘Should we lease or purchase our computers?'" Hartschuh says. "I tell them leasing is fine as long as they know they'll have ‘x' amount of money to pay for it. Most of the time they don't know whether they will."

St. Charles is using a capital lease, so any year the district decides to discontinue using leasing, "we can make that decision with a relatively low impact on operations," Reichling says. "It is conceivable that in future years the district may choose to begin funding the full purchase cost of maintaining a five- or six-year replacement cycle."

Collaboration with colleges and universities, according to Beglau, is also emerging as a funding avenue. She says that in the effort to receive new technology, "districts are forming partnerships they might not have had before with higher ed."

For instance, she says, higher education institutions that receive a GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) grant are mandated to collaborate with a school district to ready the students with certain technologies.

At the K-12 level, GEAR UP funds are being used for myriad types of technology-related learning, including professional development. The state of Oklahoma, for example, recently used GEAR UP money to provide stipends to teachers attending a one-day workshop on teaching advanced placement courses. Other states, such as California, use funds from the program to offer college preparedness through testing programs and videos and workshops.

"I think the lack of funds for both higher ed and K-12 means it has become necessary to collaborate, and in the past three to five years it has become even more necessary," Beglau says. "Now some of the funding sources are requiring collaboration, or that the districts work together at the policymaker level. We need to find more ways to encourage these kinds of partnerships and collaboration."

Such partnerships benefit both the school district and, ultimately, the students they serve, she says. "People are paying attention to these [efforts], and some funding agencies are saying, ‘This works. Let's reward that.'"

-Charlene O'Hanlon is a freelance writer based in New York.

This article originally appeared in the 10/01/2007 issue of THE Journal.