Money | In Print

10 Tips for Easing the Burden of IT Costs

Prince George's County Public Schools in Maryland, just outside of Washington, DC, has 125,000 students, 200 schools, and an annual budget of about $1.6 billion. Of course, last year that budget was cut by about $16 million. The year before it was cut by $80 million. Every year now, it seems, school districts are forced to leave no stone unturned when it comes to finding ways to save money. One would think that any changes the relatively modest IT department could make would hardly make a difference in a financial environment of that size.
The reality, though, is that the cost-cutting measures that some school districts are taking related to technology are having substantial impact--without many serious negative effects on student learning.

Prince George's County isn't alone. All over the country, IT leaders are finding out just how eager their districts and schools are to interrupt business as usual. They're cutting costs, eliminating waste, and streamlining services. Here are 10 examples from a handful of school districts that have found ways to boost their cost-cutting powers through strategic IT budgeting.

1) Take the Pay Phones--Please
Each of these symbols of a bygone era cost the Prince George's district $75 per month and, according to CIO Wesley Watts Jr., some middle and high schools had multiple phones on their campuses. "When we started brainstorming about how we could lower costs, this came up," says Watts. "In the day and age of mobile phones, it didn't seem it was going to affect many things. It was understood that if there were an emergency, the student or parent could use an office phone if the school was open. It was an easy win for us. It's saved us a few dollars."

The elimination of cell phones allocated to staff was another win--though not quite as effortless. In 2008 the district maintained about 2,500 cell phones, more than half of them on school buses. Those were deemed vital for safety, but not the others. Now, only mission-critical employees--mostly maintenance crew members on call during night and weekend hours to deal with emergencies--have district-issued mobile phones. Everybody else has turned theirs in. "Including me," Watts notes. That reduced the number of cell phones allocated to non-bus-related staff by 80 percent.

People who used to carry district-supplied cell phones--such as directors and principals--were disappointed by that decision, he observes. "Whenever you take something away, you're always going to have a little bit of hardship, a little bit of adjusting. But I think people realize we're in tough times and we were trying to lower those costs as quickly as possible."

2) Then Check the Phone Bill
Prince George's has about 8,000 phone lines. The printed monthly bill arrives in 10 boxes. Fortunately, it also comes on a DVD. "It's a very complicated bill," says Watts. "We have only a few people in the telephone services office, and it's really hard for them to audit and understand everything."

In 2010, the district hired a telecommunications auditing firm that began going through its contracts with telecom companies and examining all of those phone lines and the services attached to them to track down overcharges and erroneous billing. "If they didn't find anything, there wasn't any charge to us," Watts explains. "When they do find something, they get a percentage of the refund or credit."

In one instance, the district was inadvertently being charged taxes on a service that totaled close to half a million dollars over the course of three to four years. The audit process, still under way, is likely to result in even more unanticipated savings, Watts adds. "In some cases we're receiving credits back on things we paid over the last several years."

3) Can the Middleman
Watts also is excited about the potential of his IT organization's latest endeavor: a new distribution center that's on target to save the district upward of $1 million in its first year.

Previously, the district had a highly decentralized system in which individual campuses had limited authority to make their own purchasing decisions when it came to IT gear. If a school ordered 10 computers, a vendor would prepare those machines and deliver them directly to the school. "There was no guarantee that those 10 pieces of equipment would be bar-coded or entered into our asset management system, which became stressful," said Watts. "We had at least 50,000 computers in our district, and now we're looking at all of these mobile devices. The concerns started ratcheting up to make sure we had accountability for them."

Now all computing equipment is shipped straight to the new distribution center at one of the district's high school campuses. (That's also where Watts maintains his office.) Deliveries, ranging from a couple of boxes to several pallets, arrive every day. The IT team reads the purchase orders off the boxes, uses its enterprise resource planning system to find the individual who initiated it, and asks if he or she wants to wait on delivery until the entire order is ready or get it as a partial shipment.

"Our goal is that we'll have this completed and ready to go in 48 hours after we've received it," Watts explains. That includes bar-coding the machine, loading all applications, and getting it set up for the end user. Then it's added to a homegrown inventory system that ties into the HR and purchasing systems, and all of the paperwork that used to be done at the individual schools is completed. The devices are delivered to a technician on site at the school, who works with the staff member who will take final delivery. "We basically have--for lack of a better word--cut out the middleman," Watts notes.

Previously, vendors were charging the district to prepare and deliver equipment to the campuses--often up to $230 per machine. This year, high school teachers --all 3,200 of them--received new laptops as part of a refresh cycle. In the former scenario, that would have cost a hefty $736,000 just in machine preparation and delivery fees charged by those third parties. With the new distribution center, the district is handling all of the work previously taken on by the outside companies. The savings? About $560,000.

4) Make the Digital Shift
Forsyth County Schools in Cumming, GA, spent $2.8 million on textbooks in 2008. This year it spent $500,000 on printed materials, "and that spend level is never going to go back to the 2008 level," says Bailey Mitchell, the district's chief technology and information officer. "I don't think the money is ever going to come back. That's about $90 a student dropping to about $12."

Still, he adds, the district, which has about 36,000 students, has not slowed down its purchase of content. "It's just that we've opted to spend money on the less expensive digital content," Mitchell says. Besides cost savings, the shift has allowed for far more personalization of instruction and superior monitoring of the materials in order to know which ones are actually being used, thereby rationalizing the expenditure.

Content is coming from providers such as BrainPOP, NetTrekker, National Geographic, and United Streaming, some subscribed to by the district, and others supplied by the state. It's also coming from two district-hired content specialists. "They've been at it for about nine months," Mitchell says. In that time, they've created about 6,800 learning objects, making it more than worth the time of the two specialists, as far as he is concerned.

That's not all. The district is partnering with mainstay textbook company Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and the University of Georgia's College of Education to develop a personalized learning system that uses "100-percent digital content" for its middle and high schools in the areas of English, language arts, and math.

Explains Mitchell, "There will always be paper-based resources in play, but the core functionality of this requires a tremendous amount of high-quality digital content."

5) Bring Your Own
That push to digital content requires, of course, that students and instructors be armed with devices that can feed it to them. Previously, Forsyth County had a computer leasing program for its teacher laptops and classroom desktops, and "every three years we would renew the lease so the equipment didn't get old," says Mitchell.

Now the district has shifted to a bring-your-own-technology emphasis for both teachers and students. Although Mitchell can't point to any specific savings on that yet, he knows that new approach is changing how the district spends its device budget. "We might only invest in wireless notebooks in carts of 10. You need that to be able to provide for some equity for those students who may not have a device or for students whose batteries have died on their devices."

That's a pretty significant shift, Mitchell declares. "Basically, we have always been about [supplying] all the equipment that's needed from the district office level.…We can't afford to do that anymore, at least not in the near future."

6) Get More for…Well…the Same
When Forsyth County moved to the bring-your-own-technology approach in its middle and high schools, it became obvious that the data communications infrastructure needed to be ramped up. The district had recently spent $1.4 million to upgrade its wireless network for schools. "You have to have a really robust wireless infrastructure in your building to handle all the extra devices that will be connecting," says Mitchell.

So, when the latest internet service provider contract was up, Mitchell asked for referrals from his colleagues at other large districts and put the work out to bid. "I made it very clear to the providers: Look, it's a new time. You've been able to offer a certain price for internet connectivity, but now what I'm actually looking for is to potentially double what I'm able to get for the same money."

In the end, the district ended up paying a little bit more under the new contract with a new vendor, but Mitchell didn't get double the capacity--the new deal essentially tripled it.

7) Revisit E-Rate Rules
Before Steve Young went to work as chief technology officer for the Judson Independent School District in San Antonio in 2006, the district didn't have anybody in house with the expertise to handle the application process comprehensively for E-Rate funding.

One of the first things Young did in his new job was put out a request for proposals to find a company that could do the E-Rate application work for the district. "We just outsourced the whole thing," he notes. "I wanted an expert that could help me. It would cost a little bit up front, but my potential benefit is far greater than that cost."

As a result, things changed dramatically. By 2009 the district had requested and received $3.4 million in E-Rate funding; in 2010, it requested and received $815,000. This year it expects to have just as much success.

That will be especially critical now that the state of Texas has eliminated its $28-per-student technology allotment. "We've always gotten funds [from the state] to pay for 80 to 90 percent of the equipment," says Young. But, with 22,500 students, Judson lost $630,000 previously earmarked for IT staff salaries and equipment. With the help of the E-Rate funding, he says, "we're paying 10 to 20 cents on the dollar, which is a huge value. It's a great deal for us--it is really stretching our funds dramatically."

A key element in the formula to determine E-Rate funding is the number of students in a district that receive free or reduced-cost lunch. "Some districts probably take the view that they're never going to qualify," Young observes. "Maybe most of their schools aren't that high free and reduced lunch, so it's not worth the application time or the pain to do all that for them." But, he adds, "the economy may be changing their free and reduced lunch numbers. That's something to think about."

8) Get Schools to Ante Up
To ensure that technology funding goes to the schools that are most committed to using it wisely, the Judson district has a 50-50 program. "We pay 50 percent of the cost, and they pay the other half [out of their own budgets]." Young says. "We have a limited amount of funds. If you put funds out, then people will take it whether they need it or not. We don't want people to just grab them if they really don't want them."

There is some flexibility within this framework, the district CTO states. Some school principals are more tech-tolerant than others, and things can change when a principal moves from one school to another.
"You might have a principal at one campus that wasn't a real big tech supporter," he says. "They didn't expend any local funds, so their campus is way behind. When a principal that likes or supports technology gets a campus that had none, we're trying to fill in those kinds of gaps."

9) Go Paperless
When Young started a campaign to gradually go paperless, he was surprised that the first department to volunteer was maintenance. "That's a department you wouldn't think would be wanting paperless forms," he muses. "Sometimes the ones you'd think would jump on it the most--like our business office or HR--they're the most bogged down, and they have a process that works for them. Maintenance was like, 'We just need something to work.'"

Heating, cooling, and lights are now controlled over a network--at least in the newer schools. When somebody needs to change those settings, perhaps because of a special event, it's done from a central remote location. The group that needs the change electronically submits a request, which is routed to the principal for approval, then goes to the maintenance department for setting in the control console.

Now other departments are getting into the act. Recently, the purchasing director was pondering the process used to manage and contract with consultants for staff development and training. "It's one of the more complex things we deal with. There are a lot of steps to process," Young says. "W-9s, contracts, purchase orders, approvals at the district level, purchasing."

The Judson district uses Eduphoria's SchoolObjects, which includes a module called Formspace, a program that lets users create digital forms that include online approval processes as replacements for paper-based forms and manual approvals. "We looked at what some other companies had," Young says. "They looked good, but we couldn't afford them. We also thought we'd probably need a full-time staff member to support them as well, which is another big issue for a school district."

But as the processes being tried out in paperless form get more complex--such as creating a form that can be approved in multiple stages where more of the form is exposed as each approval takes place--the district is finding out that Formspace can still handle the work. "We're learning more as we try new things," Young says. "We're getting more and more forms put up. And, although we haven't really run numbers against how much this might save, at the end of the day, we know this is a no-brainer: It's going to cut costs. You're not using the paper. You're not trucking it around the district. You're saving a lot of time."

10) Finally, Just Turn Them Off
After shopping for a power management utility that could be used districtwide, Young's IT crew opted to put together a script themselves that automatically shuts down all computers at the end of the day. If a user happens to be on the district network after hours, a pop-up dialogue appears with a five-minute warning and instructions for how to override the shutdown.

"We might have 8,000 PCs running," Young says. Assuming that 10 to 20 percent of those are left on, by shutting them down each night, the district has probably cut its energy bill by about $30,000 a year, he estimates. That's a $120,000 savings in the four years since the script was put in place.

Granted, he adds, that savings may be reduced in time, but for good reason. "PCs are greener now," Young says. "They use less electricity, but there are also more of them."