5 Key Ways To Stretch Your Tech Budget

The Columbus School District in Wisconsin serves a small community south of Madison, with only three schools and 1,300 total students — about 30 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. In other words, we're just a typical small school district trying to make the most of our limited ed-tech budget.

Despite our modest means, we have a fairly robust technology infrastructure. A 10-gigabit fiber backbone connects our three school buildings, all of which have wireless access. We have 100 Mbps of bandwidth out to the public Internet, and we're bumping that up to 300 Mbps soon. We're also on our way to having one device for every student in grades 1 through 12 next year.

We've built out our IT infrastructure with the help of a few simple strategies. Here are five recommendations based on our experience.

Plan Ahead
Strategic planning is critical to maximizing your ed-tech investment. By correctly anticipating future needs, you can avoid unexpected costs — such as having to upgrade your network before you're ready because it no longer can handle the demands of your students and staff. Planning ahead will save you money in the long run.

When I started with the Columbus School District, we did not have a strategic plan in place to guide our technology needs. We had old Apple Airports randomly located around the district to provide wireless access, with no strategy for their replacement — and we had laptop carts that were not being used because of a lack of wireless coverage. To get the proper wireless coverage we needed, we had to pull money from our building budgets. With a solid strategic plan in place, we are hoping to avoid this need in the future.

Consider Leasing
Leasing has allowed us to procure 1,000 Lenovo laptops for a one-to-one computing initiative without a large up-front investment. If we did not lease this equipment, we would have had to come up with $295,000 for a one-time outlay — but by leasing, we were able to spread this cost over three years at a low interest rate (2.49 percent) and payments of $102,474 per year.

We've opted for a three-year lease, so we're not locked into using outdated technology; after three years, we'll be ready to refresh to newer devices. Leasing not only makes it easier to budget for new technology; it also makes planning easier, and it forces you into a reasonable replacement cycle. Owning the devices makes it easy to keep deferring their replacement for another year, and then another — and so on.

Shop Around
By talking with multiple vendors, we have been able to negotiate favorable prices on equipment and reasonable rates on leases. For instance, when we let our laptop vendor know we were looking at a local bank for lease rates, the vendor lowered its offer — which the bank ended up matching. Because our school board was very intent on keeping the business local, we went with the local bank for our financing.

Explore Creative Funding Sources
Besides seeking various corporate and private foundation grants, we took advantage of Act 32, a program intended to help Wisconsin institutions replace their outdated equipment with more energy-efficient models. With $800,000 in state funding, we were able to replace our network switches and establish a virtual server environment, which reduced our number of servers — and also our energy bill.

We also applied for and received a Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction STEM grant for our Project Lead the Way program, which helped us fund the laptops needed for that program in our middle school. We landed a grant from John Deere that helped fund our Project Lead the Way program as well.

Leverage Tech Buy-Back Programs
We were looking to replace about 300 Mac minis with new devices at the end of December when we came across a tech buy-back program from Mac to School. The company paid for us to ship all 300 devices back to them, and they are in the process of inspecting each device.

Once they're done, we'll get a certificate declaring that all data have been destroyed from each machine, along with a check for $22,500 that will help pay for replacement devices. The process couldn't be easier — and it is helping us offset the cost of new equipment.

About the Author

Chet Bembenek is the Technology Manager for the

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