Budgets | Feature

7 CTOs Discuss 'The Incredible Shrinking Budget'

Practical and strategic advice on how to practice smart IT in tough times.

This article originally appeared in T.H.E. Journal's February 2013 digital edition.

shrinking budget

If district technology leaders had a nickel for every time they heard the phrase "the new normal," they'd have all the money they need to run their IT departments. Whether or not the conventional wisdom is right --that there is no going back to pre-2008 largesse --the next few years will surely look like the past few. In an effort to help readers think about their budgets in creative and practical ways, T.H.E. Journal and the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) recently convened a panel of CTOs and technology directors to talk about how they are working within constrained finances to not only meet their IT obligations, but to move their districts forward.

Our Panelists
Kurt Bernardo, technology coordinator, Orange City Schools (OH)
Ann Dunkin, director of technology, Palo Alto USD (CA)
Keith Gillette, director of IT, Lake Forest Country Day Schools (IL)
Patricia Haughney, director of information services, Barrington CUSD (IL)
Alice Owen, division director of technology, Irving ISD (TX)
Lewis Wynn, director of technology, Caldwell ISD (TX)
Steve Young, chief technology officer, Judson ISD (TX)

This panel was conducted virtually using EDRoom, an online platform for focus groups, forums, and discussions. The discussion was a part of CoSN 's new SmartIT initiative, which provides tools and support for strategic technology planning and management. A panel on this topic will be conducted at the annual CoSN conference, March 11-13 in San Diego, co-moderated by T.H.E. Journal executive editor Christopher Piehler. Panelists will provide insights into managing new initiatives while continuing to provide existing services on tight budgets.

What has been the impact of smaller IT budgets in your district?

Kurt Bernardo: During each of the last four or five budget years, we have been required to cut our budgets by 5 percent…so over that span our budget has been trimmed by 20 to 25 percent. In an effort to do this, we looked at what our absolute financial obligations were. At the top of the list were those contracted services we could not do without: internet service, state fees for data services, licenses for applications and web-based services, service contracts, and so forth. When all was said and done, that did not leave us much for the other important things we do. Most painful for me was trimming out discretionary spending, which had often been used to explore new technologies.

Lewis Wynn: Our goal was to protect the classroom as much as possible. We began to evaluate every campus program and every software program we used. Everything we did had to have some real bang for the buck. We discontinued several programs that were useful but not fully utilized by enough students to justify their cost.

Steve Young: Every decision is a difficult one, more so now than ever. The several-months-long budget discussions the last couple of years have always led to decisions about personnel, both technology and others. It becomes a very difficult decision-making process to have to choose between items that are needed for a modern school and a staff member. There is no easy decision in these situations. Either the staff and students will have out-of-date or under-supported technology, or someone may be no longer employed.

Ann Dunkin: We haven 't had to cut our IT budget at all in the last several years. However, there haven 't been any increases in budgets, and with expenses increasing, we 've seen our budget squeezed. I took this opportunity to remove some activities that weren 't adding value to the organization and to replace them with more appropriate ones.

For example, when I arrived (at my job), my district still had an instructional materials center where teachers could check out videos, CDs, and various artifacts. I shut that down and eliminated the half FTE that managed the service. Some items went to our libraries, but most went away. A portion of the money was spent on a streaming media service and a server for the district.

Young: Much like others, we decide every year that there are some items and services that we just cannot afford. In our case at Judson ISD, we had a handful of schools with woefully out-of-date networks, the result of which was slowness and, in one case, way too much downtime. But we made a choice to not fund this large capital expenditure and to apply for E-Rate for some other sites, whose network equipment could be moved to these sites. And our decision paid off, as we were recently funded for this priority 2 E-Rate network upgrade project.

Finding the Opportunity
Working with less means approaching core functions differently. Here are new ways of doing business that have helped our panelists be smarter managers of their money.

Audit: Irving ISD (TX) hired APQC to help them audit all processes and procedures and map them out. Says Alice Owen, division director of technology: "This has been especially beneficial as we are dealing with some complicated processes that involved various departments. It has helped us streamline our work flow and save time and effort."

Centralize. Losing personnel can actually be an opportunity to take control. Again, Owen: "We lost a considerable amount of campus technology personnel. The campus people have been doubling up on the campuses they service, but we have greater control over where they go. If there are greater needs at one campus, we can direct them centrally now."

Rechannel: When Palo Alto USD (CA) moved toward unified communications, technology director Ann Dunkin used the opportunity to take charge of the telecom budget. "I redirected the telecom savings to other areas," she says.

Consult:Sometimes it's more cost-effective to hire outside experts than to do the work yourself. Dunkin brings on an E-Rate consultant each year. "We spend $15,000 a year for those services," he says, "and they returned nearly $250,000 during the first year in unclaimed E-Rate reimbursements."

Charge It: Caldwell ISD (TX) started using district credit cards for small purchases. According to technology director Lewis Wynn, using cards "saved paper processing expenses and also allowed us to buy from more vendors. In technology, I purchased more on the internet and from Amazon. The small savings added up to large savings over the course of a year."

How have tightened budgets affected vendor relations?

Dunkin: We 've pushed our vendors harder on pricing through both negotiations and competitive bidding. While it 's a little scary at times, we 've found that awarding to the low bidder (with very tight specs) has saved us a ton of money.

I have also evaluated warranties. The prior CTO had been purchasing the gold-plated warranty for four to five years. The math said that just didn 't make sense. We move to a three-year warranty (one plus two extended) and the next level of warranty down (parts and labor) and saved several hundred dollars per computer. Then we went after the base price. By committing to a certain volume at the same time each year, we saved quite a bit of money.

Young: When we have a vendor that has proven themselves as a quality provider, we will go to them to see if we can get a three-year contract at a reduced rate. These contracts are a two-way street, so sometimes we agree to help a vendor with a case study or to be a reference for them.

How are you managing hardware costs?

Young: Recently we purchased some relatively high-end refurbished equipment with five-year warranties, which we feel is a very sustainable practice. We are able to reuse some gently used computers, which are very high-quality computers, and should work very well for our staff for many years before we end up recycling them. The refurbished equipment is saving us at least 50 percent up front, and should it work well in its five-year life span, then the savings should be about 50 percent, which in this initial trial should be greater than $125,000.

Dunkin: We've always used our computers for six to seven years. When computers no longer meet the needs of the middle schools, we send them to the elementary schools, where they move through the grade levels and eventually end up in kindergarten classrooms. I have to pry ancient Macs that don 't have wireless cards out of the hands of kindergarten teachers. Generally, computers don't go to recycling until they are broken and worthless.

Keith Gillette: Transitioning our end-user computers and servers to equipment leases tremendously reduces the quantity of equipment to be disposed of each year. The combination of leasing and working with a local charity devoted to electronics recycling has eliminated all costs associated with our electronics disposal.

Keith brings up an interesting point about equipment disposal. Do any of you also engage in waste management? Is that an effort that reduces costs, or does it just make you feel virtuous?

Dunkin: We have been very cautious about our selection of a recycling vendor, ensuring that they dispose of all their waste properly, recycle what they can, and provide us with a certificate of destruction for data security. But we don't go after that as a profit center for a number of reasons, including some of California 's rather strange laws about how school districts can dispose of things. We just keep it zero-cost.

Bernardo: We have developed a good relationship with a local electronics disposal company and they have often taken away rather large loads at no cost. We have found that no company jumps for joy when we are trying to dispose of any CRTs --televisions or monitors. We are paying by the pound, but try to keep smiling by convincing ourselves that we are being "green " and responsible.

What other "green" actions have any of you taken that have also led to savings for your district?

Gillette: Implementing server virtualization reduced--by roughly 50 percent--our count of physical servers and the associated power draw.

Young: Out of the gate we were very early adopters of server virtualization, which not only saved us money on purchase of hardware, but saved us from having to make dramatic facility renovations to accommodate more servers to house the growing list of education applications and back-end systems used by departments. While this density did require us to upgrade our HVAC capacity on our data center, that was a much less expensive fix than building a new or expanded data center.

Patricia Haughney: We also have virtualized almost all our servers, saving a significant amount of money on cooling and electrical costs. Our network administrator was able to compare power costs to determine that electrical costs declined due to server virtualization. He also demonstrated that we did not need to upgrade our cooling systems as we had in the past. Previously, when we added servers to the data center, we needed to put in bigger cooling units. Our network administrator is excellent at realizing savings of this type--although it frustrates him that Building and Grounds gets the savings and credit and not us!

The Cost Benefits of E-Forms
Steve Young, CTO for Judson ISD (TX), says that moving to electronic forms has been a "resounding" financial success for his district. "By our estimates we will easily be saving the district well north of $100,000 this year." The graph below shows Young 's estimates of annual and total costs and savings from using eduphoria's SchoolObjects:Formspace.

Any other sustainability efforts that have paid off for you?

Owen: Cutting back on printers and moving to networked copiers. This has involved extensive communication with principals and teachers to help them see the value of saving money and being more "green."

Dunkin: We estimate that we save about 20 percent on our printing costs through managed printing. We also used the opportunity to get rid of older, energy-hogging printers and reduce the total number. However, reducing the total number has been challenging, as our culture is for each teacher to have a printer in their classroom and be able to print whenever they like.

Haughney: It seems as though this should be simpler than it is. Our biggest savings could be realized by replacing printers with fewer networked copiers and printing less! This is one of our major initiatives, but it is frustratingly slow. We are currently implementing more online initiatives and trying to measure their effectiveness by keeping track of paper and toner costs. This is really a cultural issue and not one the technology department can easily control.

Gillette: Unfortunately, implementing print accounting and distributing printing costs to departmental budgets has neither decreased printing nor contained costs for us as it has at other schools. We need improved electronic workflow, user education to create a cultural shift, and perhaps hard print quotas.

What about the cloud? Has moving services to the cloud proved to be cost-effective?

Bernardo: About 18 months ago we transitioned to Google Apps for Education. This has been a huge cost-saver for us, since it costs us next to nothing. We were able to do away with the server used for Microsoft Exchange. This in itself has saved us licensing fees, electricity, and countless hours of management and backup routines. We have also saved on Microsoft licenses for Office software.

The only cost associated with this endeavor is the amount we pay to Google to maintain an e-mail archival system. This really comes out in the wash, because we were able to do away with a piece of archiving hardware that we had to run and maintain like any other server. Using Google has also lessened the load on our local file servers for both staff and students. While we will probably always have to maintain some local storage, we have not had to add drives or monitor the amount of space we are using.

Gillette: Implementing Microsoft Live@Edu (now Office 365 for Education) allowed us to increase our service offerings without increased expense by giving us free hosted e-mail for students, a service we had not previously offered. We do plan to transition our faculty and staff e-mail next year once Microsoft migrates us from Live@Edu to Office 365 for Education this coming spring, which will save us Microsoft Exchange upgrade fees and decrease our local server needs for our next round of server replacements next summer.

Owen: Irving ISD has utilized cloud-based services for disaster recovery for several of our major applications. We are moving more toward outsourcing certain applications, simply because our staff is already overloaded. It also shifts the burden of maintenance and uptime to the vendor.

Dunkin: Cloud-based services have also generated some savings for us. Two years ago we moved to hosted exchange for staff. While the hard cost savings were relatively small, I was thrilled to get rid of my tape library and move to an archiving service, and I saved half of an FTE. Hosted exchange freed up one of my best technicians to do more value-added work.

Is achieving cost efficiencies a major value proposition for IT?

Gillette: While we seek cost efficiencies within IT and across the organization, cost savings is not a primary value proposition of IT in our school. While we must cut costs and leverage IT to do so, IT plays a much more strategic role for us. As an independent school, we are tuition-driven and must differentiate our offerings to survive in the market. IT is most important to us in creating that differentiation from other school alternatives by enhancing and supporting the core education program.

Dunkin: While we actively seek cost savings in IT, the purpose of the effort is to use the funds we have most efficiently. There is never enough money for IT, and all our savings get plowed right back into new projects and capabilities. My superintendent says, "You keep telling me about all this money you 're saving me, but I never see any of it! " I tell him that he 's getting more for his money --and it's true. The district sees IT as a critical enabler of teacher and student success and is willing to invest in IT as long as we meet that promise.

12 Ways Going Green Saves Green
Here's a sustainability checklist that compiles the various green IT measures our panelists have taken in their districts that have also saved them money--in some cases, a lot of money. For guidance in going green, check out CoSN 's Green Computing Certification program.

  • Server virtualization
  • Waste management and recycling of old equipment (including printer light bulbs)
  • Refurbishing/leasing/extending life cycle of hardware
  • Document/print management
  • Buying Energy Star equipment, including network gear
  • Including sustainability requirements in RFPs
  • Remote machine management
  • Remote building management to shut off lights and electrical equipment
  • Configuring printers for power-save mode and projectors to shut down after disuse
  • Setting up central and distributed charging stations
  • Replacing disposable batteries in cameras and remote controls with reusable batteries
  • Web conferencing and online training for staff PD