Tech Leadership

The Balancing Act Between Services and Budget

by JIM HIRSCH

School systems are not immune to the ripples (or, in some cases, waves) surrounding economic tides. The effects of the economy tend to take a year or more to be felt within the education community due to funding cycles, but the effects inevitably come as the political discussions surrounding public policy highlight the education system. In our current financial climate, we’re seeing the effects of the last few years of economic slowdown make their way into education by way of lower state funding levels and local property values remaining constant or even decreasing to limit the local taxing power of school districts. As these cuts make their way into school districts, the rallying cry continues to be “keep the cuts away from the classroom.” The necessary balancing act to budget prudently while providing for technology requires you to consider several questions.

  • How do you protect your current investments in technology? First, identify those investments that have had the most impact. Beyond the initial cost of equipment, you’ve probably provided professional development for staff, software applications to reach learning and business goals and perhaps staff to support the use of technology. If this sounds similar to your current environment, your teachers now trust that when they have prepared lessons that depend on the technology, it will be available and reliable. Earning that trust of staff has been one of the major accomplishments of the last five years in most school districts. Reducing the support structure you’ve built for instructional technology carries the risk of losing the reliability of classroom technology, which may cause teachers to be more hesitant in their use of technology with students. Protecting your investments in technology means maintaining the usability of those resources throughout the organization while employing strategies to lower costs where possible.

  • What technology resources need to be preserved? If you’ve implemented instructional or business systems that require network connectivity to operate successfully, maintaining a support strategy, either internal or outsourced, to keep network downtime to a minimum should be a first priority. Additionally, any resources necessary to provide support for these networked software applications should be held whole as long as possible.

  • What expenditures can be deferred? Typically, operating system upgrades and software application upgrades can be delayed with relatively little loss in productivity or usability. Yet older versions of software may no longer receive support from vendors so delays in upgrading should be planned as temporary. In a similar fashion, replacement plans for hardware can be deferred while realizing that maintenance costs often rise with older equipment as warranties expire and replacement parts become more difficult to locate. This strategy also contributes to a loss of reliability—affecting how teachers, students and other staff members have come to rely on technology for daily activities.

     

  • What can a school district simply eliminate (or not initiate)? Examine those programs that have not embedded technology resources as a requirement yet (if any exist) and delay investments in their progress. Resist the urge to purchase new hardware with grant dollars if no corresponding budget dollars will be available to provide adequate training and support. Eliminate spending on pilot programs or related research efforts if budget dollars will not be available for replication.

  • What cost-cutting strategies can be considered? While not strictly cost-cutting, determine which current expenditures in technology can be legitimately re-directed to existing bond dollars. Carefully evaluate your current student-to-teacher ratios. Even slight adjustments may free up significant funds to continue necessary technology support. Compare the costs of outsourcing technology support with using internal staff. Budget reductions may mean giving up localized control for contracted services. Look for consortium purchase opportunities to reduce costs on commonly used items. Finally, be prepared for future budget reductions by using zero-based budgeting for all operational activities in preparing for the next budget build. As technology resources lead to more effective instruction, more productivity in business services and more timely information on student achievement, it becomes more difficult to pinpoint reductions in the technology portion of the budget due to ripple effects throughout the organization. Plan carefully and look for reductions in all possible areas before making what used to be automatic cuts in technology budgets. Jim Hirsch is associate superintendent of technology in the Plano Independent School District, 2700 W. 15th St., Plano, TX 75075. E-mail: jhirsch@pisd.edu