Oct 12 2006

How Many School Districts Are Spending Less Through Sharing

To keep pace with growing technology demands, many school districts turn to IT cooperatives to shave prices and tackle big projects.

Time, money, and expertise. Who can ever get enough of these three essentials?

Certainly not most school district information technology departments. Indeed, tighter budgets and increasingly complex technology are making it more difficult than ever to stay on top of the education system’s IT demands.

For many districts, the way around the problem has been to pool their money and share the time of IT professionals who have the needed expertise. From this seed of an idea, shared-services consortia have sprung up across the nation to help school districts tackle enterprise-level IT projects, run mission-critical technical services and act as member districts’ chief procurement agents.

“We let schools focus on what they do best—educating students—and they let us focus on what we do best—running IT systems,” explains Lee Whitcraft, co-executive director of Technology Information Education Services (TIES), an educational cooperative serving 37 districts in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.

In New York state, such benefits are offered through Boards of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES), which are funded and overseen by member districts. BOCES, which was started in 1948, now has 38 boards across the state and serves 695 school districts.

The units were designed as shared services organizations with classroom offerings such as vocational education and summer schools. As the Information Age dawned it became increasingly clear that IT was another area in which shared services could deliver significant savings.

This model works well when you treat the districts like customers, says Penny Notarnicola, senior project manager for the Western Suffolk BOCES on Long Island, N. Y. “These districts don’t have to use our services,” she says. “So we have to stand on the value and quality that we can deliver to them.”

Indiana has a similar story. In the late 1970s, the state created nine regional service centers. Over time, those cooperatives recognized the pressing need for unbiased IT consultation and professional project management.

In rural southeastern Indiana, the Wilson Educational Center in Charlestown offers schools in the 12 counties it serves and the other eight service centers in the state and their membership a co-op purchasing program via an electronic commerce system. “As technology has changed, we’ve tried to stay ahead of the curve,” says Larry Risk, Wilson’s executive director.

When telecommunications carriers were slow to bring Internet services to that corner of the state, Risk’s center spearheaded efforts to get the schools online by becoming an Internet service provider. Now the center is leading efforts to put two-way interactive video equipment and the appropriate networks into the 162 school buildings it serves. “We can provide vision for our members,” Risk says. “That’s probably the most important thing we do.”

Working in the Trenches

Sharon Fellner may be the epitome of what a public school district IT director should be. Beginning as an elementary school teacher in the 1980s, Fellner’s teaching career took her up through the grade levels to middle school classrooms. But a funny thing happened along the way: She became fascinated with the potential of technology to educate students and improve school systems. Now the director of technology for South Huntington School District in Huntington Station, N.Y., Fellner’s guiding principles are “Be humble” and “Network with good, knowledgeable people.”

Notarnicola of Western Suffolk BOCES has proven to be one of those people, Fellner says, especially during a recent $1 million fiber-optic project. “We were literally starving for bandwidth and reliable Internet connections,” she says.

Notarnicola helped draw up the fiber-optic project plan, managed its implementation and made sure it all happened within the window of time that would let the school district maximize state aid. South Huntington paid 10 percent of the project costs to Western Suffolk BOCES; 60 percent of the overall costs were covered by the state.

“We’d have paid far more for a private consultant to do all that work, and we received top-quality service,” Fellner points out. “We wouldn’t have been able to afford this project without BOCES.”

In the nearby Copiague Public School District, Technology Director Tom Diener is another fan of Notarnicola and BOCES. While South Huntington was working on its fiber-optic project, Diener’s district was working with BOCES to bid and design a new student management system in which all district teachers will get wireless notebooks with electronic gradebooks.

“We’re a small district, and there’s only so much we can do on our own,” Diener says. “Virtually everything we do, we run through BOCES.”

District technology consortium TIES in Minnesota earns similar plaudits from its members. At the Brooklyn Center school system, which is just north of Minneapolis, Sharon VanDenbos, the district’s technology director, gets tech support, Internet service, hosted administrative applications and project management through TIES.

“There are a lot of demands on school districts right now,” VanDenbos says. “We’re trying to hire people to keep up with our own systems. Without a consortium, we’d be down the tubes.” Having the consortium to focus on enterprise-level IT work lets VanDenbos concentrate on the best ways to deliver on a multitude of federal and state mandates, such as No Child Left Behind.

Proving Their Worth

The common model for these consortia is for member districts to act as the consortium’s board of directors. Districts also are free to shop around for better services if they aren’t happy with their consortium.

The North East Florida Educational Consortium in Palatka, roughly 50 miles south of Jacksonville, runs a data center and provides IT services to 14 districts around the state. District-level control helps train the organization’s focus on the right spot, says Kevin Buss, project manager for systems support. “It keeps everything aboveboard and very open,” he says. “We’re their data shop, and we treat it like that.”

Like any IT director who is petitioning management for new funding, Buss sometimes finds that a new initiative is met with skepticism by districts that didn’t generate the idea themselves. But that doesn’t deter him. “It’s up to us to prove that [the initiative] is a feasible, sensible, cost-effective way of doing something,” he says. “They need to see that we’re spending their money wisely.”

In the mid-1990s the Butte County Office of Education in Oroville, Calif., began to offer IT consortium services. Today, Russ Selken, the director, estimates that the consortium saves each of the 14 member districts at least $100,000 a year. “Within the county, I work hard to gain their trust,” Selken says. “We have to lay out exactly what they stand to get by giving up a little bit of autonomy.”

Selken tries to let the school districts drive his initiatives, but when the occasion warrants, he’ll step in to provide the big picture, such as the economies of scale that districts can enjoy by standardizing on certain types of hardware and software.

Consortia almost invariably cut better deals on technology purchasing. In Florida, Buss’ organization has negotiated prices that are lower than those on state contracts.

Notarnicola of the Western Suffolk BOCES spends hours researching new machines and negotiating group rates so that her member districts “don’t have to spend all their time with requests for proposals.” In Indiana, Risk’s service center helped establish a 21-state buying consortium and offers co-op purchasing contracts to the other eight service centers in the state.

A consortium’s limited focus lets it research funding mechanisms in ways districts can’t match without hours of overtime, Butte County’s Selken contends. “The ability to piggyback on other bids or to use state contracts is crucial,” he says. “Many districts don’t realize that our state contracts only establish price ceilings and can be negotiated down.”

“As a single district, I don’t have a lot of leverage with vendors,” Copiague’s Diener points out. “With group buying, we can afford things we’d never be able to get on our own.”

Eye on the Future

For school districts and the consortia that support them, IT is becoming ever more complex. TIES in Minnesota is entering the data warehousing and analysis arenas, as well as undertaking a portal project that will aggregate student, school finance and other information into one individualized view for teachers, administrators and parents. For the past two years, TIES has provided student grade and attendance information online to parents. “We’re looking to use technology to put more information into the hands of parents,” TIES’ Whitcraft reports.

Western Suffolk BOCES is looking into the creation of a regional area network to handle the bandwidth demands of videoconferencing and beefed-up security being deployed in its 18 districts. Notarnicola is also evaluating smart card systems. “The more we enable our districts to do, the more we have to make sure it’s done in a secure fashion,” she says.

In Palatka, Fla., Buss echoes the sentiment, noting that network security has become so complex that his districts clamor for guidance. “We’re spending a lot of time on how to set things up without creating a new set of problems,” he says.

In Indiana, Risk’s center offers a new, locally developed e-procurement system to K-12 schools and hopes to offer the same service to city and county offices. “If they can use the service, and it helps them [the way] it does the schools, then we’re perfectly willing to provide the service for them,” Risk notes.

Increasing technological complexity and ever-tightening budgets will make the consortium model an even better proposition for school districts in the coming years, Butte County’s Selken says. With schools “constantly competing with private enterprise in terms of the talent they can attract,” he says, it may even be a necessary survival tactic.

Michael Meehan is a freelance business and technology writer in Brookline, Mass.

Is a Tech Consortium Right for You?

• Lack of enough personnel to tackle complex new initiatives

• Need for skilled but less-than-full-time personnel

• Lack of time or expertise to research the latest IT offerings or negotiate best prices

• Desire for a professional IT consultancy that is answerable to the district

• Realization that going it alone on new projects or services would cost too much

Source: Ed Tech reporting