Tammy Standley and Joe Buglione say that centralized IT, buying services and staff development allow the many small eastern Oregon school districts served by the Umatilla-Morrow ESD to obtain technology that they would not otherwise be able to afford or support.

Aug 31 2009

5 Thrifty Technology Investment Strategies for School Disctricts

Whether brainstorming for ideas or pooling resources, school districts find that coming together helps stretch scarce IT dollars.

Whether brainstorming for ideas or pooling resources, school districts find that coming together garners benefits for technology programs and helps stretch scarce IT dollars.

If it works, keep doing it.

That could be the mantra for the cooperative purchasing program run by the Umatilla-Morrow Education Service District in Oregon. In fact, it could be the mantra for the ESD itself, which has provided services to Oregon schools for nearly 150 years. Today, it offers services to 12 school districts in its two core counties of Umatilla and Morrow, plus services through state contracts to schools in another dozen counties.

Technology procurement receives plenty of attention from the ESD's Intermountain Cooperative Purchasing Program. “We do all the purchasing for the IT Department, which is really for the schools,” says Coop Purchasing Coordinator Tammy Standley. “We depend on our technology department. They do needs assessments and tell us what the schools need in the way of technology, and we go out and establish contracts and buy it.”

The coop also manages contracts used by schools throughout Oregon that offer IT wares as well, including national purchasing contracts that the ESD takes part in through its participation in organizations such as the Association of Educational Purchasing Agencies.

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“Purchasing has become a lot easier with technology because you can partner with people,” Standley says. “A cooperative can stretch your dollars a lot further, even if your partners are not in your physical vicinity.”

While the weakened economy has prompted many districts to find creative ways to save money, the Oregon ESD has been doing it for years. Umatilla-Morrow has run its cooperative for 30 years – procuring everything from pencils and brooms to toilet paper and desks. The coop's IT buying initiatives really took off over the past decade, Standley says.

The tight budgets affecting districts big and small only make programs such as these more compelling. So how are districts stretching IT budgets through partnerships, alliances, cooperatives and collaboration? The possibilities are vast: purchasing cooperatives, statewide brainstorming taskforces, cross-district development services, information sharing and bulk purchasing initiatives.

Standley's advice is simple: “Look around and see what other people are doing, then try to partner with them.” 

Buying as One

“When the ESD first started, we really had one-room schoolhouses that were out in the middle of nowhere,” Standley says. And even today, although 12 districts take part in the ESD, many are tiny with only a few small schools in mountainous rural eastern Oregon. Before the cooperative began focusing more on IT purchases, “they had no purchasing leverage, paid huge shipping rates and couldn't afford to buy very much,” she says.

The cooperative built an online store to provide a one-stop shop for the schools, which “really reduces the cost of their procurement time,” Standley says.

She credits the coop's work with the IT team for helping bring several technologies into the schools the ESD serves, and in particular cites a 2007 program to provide Epson projectors and AVerMedia AVerVision document cameras for every classroom in the two counties. “I've never seen a technology so infused in the district,” she says.

The coop has an online ordering and procurement system that the IT staff and the districts use for the entire buying process – from purchase orders through billing. “When we buy things for the districts and schools, we keep track of all the warranty and rebates, too,” Standley says. “It's a very comprehensive turnkey system. They put their requests in the system, and they're done.”

Sharing the Risk

For the Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township in Indianapolis, many thriving IT initiatives stem from its participation in a statewide taskforce, PartnerShare, a 15-year-old cooperative venture of superintendents and Indiana University.

The taskforce's technology subgroup meets about nine times a year, rotating its meetings to different locations around the state so that participants can conduct on-site visits to see IT in use in Indiana schools. Then, the members brainstorm.

It saves districts money by allowing their IT organizations to learn what works and what doesn't, and to better understand new and best practices. “You don't have to be on the bleeding edge,” MSD Wayne Township Chief Technology Officer Pete Just says. “You can share the pain of looking at new technologies with other school districts.”

18.5% The drop in state funds K–12 schools experienced from 2009 budgeted figures to fiscal 2011, creating an 8.7% drop in total public education spending over the same period.

SOURCE: Center on Reinventing Public Education, “Projections of State Budget Shortfalls on K–12 Public Education Spending and Job Loss”

That's been crucial for MSD Wayne, which this year took a financial hit, lost IT staff positions and won't be filling some routine job vacancies any time soon. 

Just points to three initiatives that grew out of PartnerShare and that benefit his district's 19 schools:

  • MSD Wayne has installed PC multipliers so that all students in the third through fifth grades can access applications on end-user devices powered through a single PC in several of its primary schools. “That wasn't on our radar two years ago,” he says. The project has gone so well over the past nine months that the district plans to expand it to other grade levels.
  • The district is deploying 520 Lenovo netbooks to target secondary-school reading and writing literacy programs. “Netbooks have been in our sights for a while,” Just says. “We started evaluating those early on after talking to other schools. It's a right-sizing that we can do now because of the availability of a whole new genre of technology.” MSD Wayne has also used netbooks to target primary grades and help schools meet technology literacy goals and improve student access to resources.
  • This fall, the district will begin a full-scale VMware virtualization implementation. Wayne Township had done a few small virtualization tests, then last year Just and Technical Manager Mark Lutey visited virtualization programs under way in Mishawaka, at the Penn-Harris-Madison school district. “That PartnerShare visit was probably one of the biggest ‘aha' moments I had in the last couple of years – when I saw their success and moved virtualization from something we were toying with to the must-do list.”

62% of school districts report that their technology budgets have remained unchanged or decreased for the past three years.

SOURCE: CoSN Grunwald Survey

Centralizing Development Services

In Umatilla-Morrow, Standley says she views the two staff developers who work on its IT team as the ESD's secret technology weapons.

The pair are former teachers. “We understand what the teachers are saying with curriculum; we've been there. But we can also speak the IT language. We can bridge that gap; we can translate,” says Staff Developer Joe Buglione.

Selecting and buying IT requires a lot of research. By having a central IT organization, “that research gets done once and well,” Buglione says. “I feel it makes us so much stronger in our region that our IT department encompasses all the little districts.”

The staff development team reaches out to teachers in multiple ways. It hosts training sessions, such as a current course about the Promethean whiteboards that IT is deploying. Or, if a tool such as a handheld computer looks promising, the team might acquire a few demo devices and ask a teacher or two to use them with their kids for a few weeks.

Buglione also racks up mileage traveling from school to school around the ESD, which extends nearly 150 miles from one end to the other. Buglione says that's how he picks up some of his best technology tips and uses in the classroom. He sees something smart done by one teacher, and then 50 miles down the road he shares it with another teacher.

Revealing Value

Sometimes making an IT budget go far is all about keeping up with (or, perhaps more precisely, down with) other schools. It helps to know exactly what other districts are paying for technology goods and services, says Greg Lindner, director of technology services for the Elk Grove Unified School District in California.

Participating in associations and buying consortiums is one way to keep tabs on IT procurement pricing and practices, says Lindner, who also is secretary of the 49-year-old California Educational Technology Professionals Association. CETPA maintains an electronic list server where members from around the state can share IT procurement tips and offer details about the technologies they buy, the contract mechanisms and the prices that they pay. “It's important to keep pushing for low pricing and top notch service and quality,” he says.

At the Elk Grove USD, “we have also started a countywide technology directors group,” says Lindner. “All the K–12 technology directors get together once a month to discuss pertinent issues. Oftentimes lately, that has centered around budgets.” His organization, for instance, had to reduce its operating budget by 8 percent, or about $100,000, and has frozen hiring for open positions.

Buying (and Thinking) for the Long Haul

Even for a massive district such as the Los Angeles Unified School District, which has more than 10,000 employees, collaboration plays a crucial role in assuring well-priced technology services. One way that IT takes advantage of the district's size is by working closely with schools to identify hardware, software and services that make sense to buy for the enterprise, says Themistocles “Themy” Sparangis, chief technology director for LAUSD educational technology.

Of equal importance is setting a procurement strategy that accounts for the true expected life of the technology. And for schools, that life is typically longer than it might be in other industries, Sparangis says.

A prime example would be notebook and desktop systems, says Sparangis, a 24-year veteran of the Los Angeles district. “We saw from an industry-standard perspective the lifespan is two to three years for laptops and three to five for PCs, but we need to keep them nearer to 10 years,” he says.

To help extend the life of their systems, the district negotiates a five-year repair/replacement package and warranty on PCs and a three-year package for notebooks. That way, the systems are repaired or replaced at no cost for their minimum expected life, he says.

In the end, one constant holds true in education, even when acquiring IT, Sparangis says: “What has probably been reinforced the most over my years is that any time what you do gets down to that student in that classroom achieving, then the result adds up to doing a good job.”

Don't Overlook This Source of Ideas

“Always listen to the students,” recommends Themistocles “Themy” Sparangis.

While everything that school districts do focuses on educating and preparing students, it's easy to overlook them as a resource, says Sparangis, chief technology director for educational technology for the Los Angeles Unified School District.

“They surprise us by how they can take what we, as adults, make so complex and make it into a simple solution,” he says. “We often end up solving problems that they don't even think exist.”

Keep asking for their input and consider the students an extra source of inspiration and innovation, Sparangis says.

How a Coop Pays for Itself

The goal of the Intermountain Cooperative Purchasing Program run by the Umatilla-Morrow Educational Services District is to neither make nor lose money.

To do that, on its national contracts, the coop applies a percentage fee that is based on purchase price. It also gathers and resells old textbooks from its member school districts. And it runs a large recycling program.

There's no profit, the money made from fees, the textbook program and recycling goes right back into the coop to cover costs, says Purchasing Director Tammy Standley.

<p>Robbie McClaran</p>