Dollars That Make Sense
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.
EQUIPPING 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
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
"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
The resolution wasn't
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.