K-12 IT departments play a critical role in today’s tech-centered educational environment. Unfortunately, their representation at the C-level when it comes to strategic planning and budgeting doesn’t always correspond. And despite an IT department’s importance in school systems’ day-to-day and long-term operations and success, IT leaders often face challenges that make strategic planning and budgeting difficult. That not only impacts the department’s effectiveness but it also eventually circles back to impact the school system as a whole.
Whether an IT department is trying to launch the process of developing a strategic plan or make an existing one more effective, there are practical ways IT leaders can tackle challenges, advance strategic planning and budgeting, claim a spot at the table and contribute an important voice and expertise.
Challenge: Technology purchases made without input from IT or technology department
School districts today grapple with pressures to meet higher standards and more requirements with dwindling resources. That reality combined with a world of ever-changing technology can lead to a rise in what Tom Ryan, chief information and strategy officer at Santa Fe Public Schools, calls the “Shiny Object Syndrome.” New, better, more advanced tools and systems often lure departments into making purchases that may be solutions to problems that don’t exist, aren’t a priority or don’t take into account existing technology capabilities.
Ryan found that the best antidote to mitigate that risk is a multi-year plan developed and overseen by a cabinet of representatives from other departments. He built a team that includes the chief finance, procurement and academic officers, as well as a representative from human resources. Including CIOs from outside the organization as well provides a neutral perspective and voice of reason.
This type of technology coalition sets standards, reviews requests and prioritizes projects based on a board-approved multi-year plan. Including multiple departments in the process helps focus on problems rather than solutions, eliminates surprise purchases and enables technology governance to help ensure that technology-related purchases go through IT. A proactive strategy that includes perspective and insight across all departments also promotes group-based decisions.
Challenge: Budget cuts, constraints or crises
When budget challenges hit a school district, departmental budgets across the board become targets, with a bullseye on unspent funds. A multi-year technology plan that drives a multi-year funding strategy to move the whole system forward is the best insurance against crippling cuts and constraints. But when cuts are unavoidable, there are strategic moves technology departments can make to reduce the risk of cuts to the budget, such as:
- Determine what funds can be spent at the beginning of the year so they’re not sitting ducks for cuts later in the year. For example, can maintenance contracts be paid annually in January?
- Move Internet costs from the technology department to the district’s utility account, with water, gas and electric costs. The Internet has become a utility service that’s just as necessary.
- Move more services to the cloud to better manage and budget. The more FTE’s assigned to the department, the bigger the target.
- Use budget cuts to rethink opportunities. Use KPIs, data, and benchmarks to push back on vendor partners for cost reductions.
Ryan also had success taking a legislative approach to tackling long-term budget constraints, forming a statewide coalition of schools that developed legislation specific to technology funding. Rather than purchase computers using funding vehicles designed for buildings that carried a 15- to 30-year long-term debt, new bond issues for technology are based on the three- to five-year lifespan of computers. Changing the legislation reduces the risk that comes with operational budgets that fluctuate with the economy.
Challenge: IT departments tasked with supporting new technology without an increase in staff
When an onslaught of new technology stretches IT budgets and staff, what’s an IT department’s best line of defense? Often, it is technology that provides metrics to justify staff and resources. Data such as the number of help desk tickets, comparisons of schools with tech coordinators on site to those without, lost time, even benchmarking performance against other school districts, provides the stark reality of the impact of an underfunded and overworked IT department.
On the flip side, data can also show that more money isn’t always the answer. Does a $5,000 instructional technology grant make sense when it costs $10,000 to support it? Does a cheaper system or device make sense if students can’t perform the state assessment with it? Data allows districts to plan strategically and look at opportunities from a business perspective.
Although IT leaders might encounter challenges, combining instructional objectives with IT expertise and data helps school districts be more effective and impactful with their strategic planning. Pulling in multiple perspectives from the school district, reviewing budgets carefully and using smart technology can help advance strategic planning and budgeting and allow IT to secure a seat at the table and offer critical insight and expertise.
Nick Mirisis is vice president of marketing for Dude Solutions and a board member of the Consortium for School Networking.