Dec 10 2009

Prepared for Change: Understanding Your Tech Costs

A total cost of ownership assessment offers a handy tool for dealing with district budget cuts.

  A total cost of ownership assessment offers a handy tool for dealing with district budget cuts.

School technology leaders faced the reality of sizable cuts to their technology operating and capital budgets this year, and next year is likely to be worse. According to a recent American Association of School Administrators survey, personnel cuts were made in two-thirds of districts this year, and 83 percent of respondents anticipate cuts in their district next year. In an effort to save teaching jobs, respondents anticipate big hits on central office and administration jobs, including IT.

While made with good intentions, decisions about staff cuts and delays of projects and computer refresh cycles are often rendered with minimal analysis and even less understanding of the ramifications of these cuts on the district's mission. It is difficult to predict the effects of IT budget cuts without a holistic understanding of all of the costs.

A total cost of ownership assessment is an essential tool for understanding direct or budgeted technology and personnel costs, as well as indirect costs – unbudgeted costs borne by computer users. Taking it a step further, a TCO assessment can be an effective tool for estimating the impact of proposed budget changes.

Developing a TCO model and determining TCO is not trivial. Fortunately, the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) and Gartner teamed up several years ago to develop a free web-based tool to guide district technology leaders through the TCO assessment process.

Among school districts surveyed, 59% reported being unable to save any of the central office or administrative positions slated for elimination in their district.

A new CoSN website with reference material, case studies, tips and a link to the CoSN-Gartner K–12 TCO tool can be found at The tool is useful for strategic IT budget planning and offers a tactical approach to reducing IT operating costs.

Strategic Planning

It's difficult to know where you're going if you don't know where you are, and it's difficult to know the impact of budget cuts if you don't understand your direct and indirect costs. For instance, it might seem like a good idea to eliminate a technician from the IT department, but while such a cut may be good for the budget, does it really save the district money? Does that technician's work just dry up? Not at all – it simply transfers to teachers and other users who are more expensive and not trained to fix technology problems. Similar arguments can be made for bypassing a computer refresh cycle.

A TCO assessment using the CoSN-Gartner TCO tool helps you understand today's direct costs (including who outside the IT department also provides formal technology support), plus indirect costs, including self-support by your users. With this knowledge, the TCO tool can be used again to estimate the effect of proposed changes.

Tactical Efficiency Measures

Typically stretched thin, school IT organizations are focused on keeping the patchwork of servers, networks, computers and printers running. New applications or projects often require outside help because of a lack of IT staff time. In many districts, the basics of maintaining the infrastructure and implementing measures to enhance IT support are neglected. With potential crises in the offing, now is the time to focus on efficiencies.

A TCO assessment can help point out operational and infrastructure weaknesses that can be strengthened. The results section of the CoSN-Gartner TCO tool offers a per-computer comparison with high/low values from eight TCO case studies for each metric measured, which allows the school technology leader to identify operational and equipment issues that need to be addressed.

These results, used in conjunction with the checklist on the CoSN TCO website, offer input for developing a more efficient operation. Some solutions, such as centralized help desk and user support tools require a modest up-front expense – a great use of stimulus funding or at least a negotiating point when faced with budget cuts that affect quality of support.

Rich Kaestner is project director at CoSN. Founded in 1992, CoSN is the premier professional association for school district technology leaders.

<p>Rob Daly/Photolibrary</p>