Rural districts are working to secure funding for network upgrades through creative school board presentations and existing E-rate opportunities.

Jun 20 2019

K–12 Leaders Get Creative to Make the Case for Network Upgrades

IT leaders get creative to convince district leaders and government agencies to invest in network upgrades.

Two years ago, IT Services Director AJ Phillips needed to persuade her school board to purchase new network infrastructure, so she tapped her prior experience as an elementary school teacher and presented a show-and-tell.

At the time, Prince William County Public Schools in Virginia desperately needed to replace its 20-year-old core network, which maxed out at 2 gigabits per second. Parents and staff complained about slow, spotty performance.

But from the school board’s perspective, the schools already had a network, so board members wondered why it wasn’t working properly. During a school board meeting, Phillips arrived with a set of props: three PVC pipes she borrowed from the school division’s plumbing shop. She showed a 1-inch, 2-inch and 10-inch pipe, labeling them as 1Gbps, 2Gbps and 10Gbps.

“I told them we were at 1 gig in 2013, we went up to 2 gigs in 2015, and now we need 10 gigs,” Phillips says. “We are trying to get 90 schools and 58,000 network devices and connections to go through this little 2-gig pipe, and it’s not working. And they said, ‘We get it.’ It was a visual that totally made sense to them.”

MORE FROM EDTECH: Check out where K–12 schools can turn to secure funding for personalized learning programs.

Educate Stakeholders About Cost Comparisons and Success Stories

Schools today require vast amounts of bandwidth, but convincing leaders to pay for networking projects is often challenging, even with the Federal Communication Commission’s E-rate program subsidizing most of the costs. IT leaders must present a solid business case — sometimes with creative approaches, like the one Phillips took — but also by explaining the finances.

That requires educating stakeholders on E-rate discounts and showing that building a fiber network can be more cost-effective than using a WAN service provider, says Jack Lynch, director of state engagements at EducationSuperHighway, a nonprofit that helps schools get high-speed internet access.

A show-and-tell helped board members understand the need for more bandwidth, says AJ Phillips of Prince William County (Va.) Public Schools. Photography by: Jonathan Timmes.

IT leaders should also explain the FCC’s bandwidth goals for schools, Lynch says, and talk to other districts so they can gather success stories to share with their own school boards.

“A lot of times, superintendents and school boards aren’t technical, so when they don’t understand the technology, it can be hard to support an initiative. They are not coming from a place of confidence, so doing that education is important,” he says. 

Dual Networks Help Schools Manage a Growing Number of Devices

When Phillips became IT director in 2015, Prince William County Public Schools was buying a lot of desktop and notebook computers, which placed tremendous strain on the aging network. Monthly outages were common.

She started lobbying the school board in October 2016, formally presented to them (pipes included) in February 2017 and got funding approval two months later.

“The pipes are what really sealed it,” she says.

The school division spent $2 million to build two new 10Gb core networks, giving the district 20Gbps of throughput. 

They were deployed in an active-active state, so if one goes down, the other keeps operations running. The division is also spending $2.5 million to upgrade the LAN at each school and is one year from completing an upgrade of each school’s Wi-Fi network.

The IT department standardized on Cisco Nexus 9508 switches in the network core and Cisco Catalyst 4500-X 10 Gigabit edge switches at each school. Phillips also convinced the board to increase the district’s internet connection from 2Gbps to 10Gbps. For each project, E-rate pays 60 percent and the school division covers 40 percent.

MORE FROM EDTECH: Learn more about how K–12 schools can navigate the complexities of E–Rate.

A Visual Demonstration, Combined with Data, Seals the Deal

Phillips built a business case by consulting with EducationSuperHighway, which put her in touch with other districts

They gave her advice on how to upgrade the network, how much bandwidth they used and how much they paid ISPs for their internet connection.

That gave her the ammunition she needed — along with her pipes — to sell a new network and faster internet connection to the school board.

“I went in heavy handed,” she says. “I had data from other districts and pulled up data from EducationSuperHighway’s map and showed them the schools in the surrounding area, how many gigs they had and how much they paid. The competitive side of our leadership said, ‘Well, we didn’t know that neighboring district had that much bandwidth.’”

At the time, Prince William County Public Schools paid $6,000 a month for a 2Gbps connection. With the board’s approval, the school division has quadrupled its speed for $5,000 a month more.

IT staff plan to upgrade the network core again to 40Gbps of total throughput. In the meantime, the faster, more reliable core network, which went live in spring 2018, is making a huge difference for students because it can now support additional devices and online resources.

“The schools now have more confidence in the network — that when they want to go online, it will work,” Phillips says.

IT Leader Secures School, County, State and Federal Support

Further south in Virginia, Technology Director Peter Martin had to convince four parties to build a fiber network for Goochland County Public Schools: the superintendent, the county, the state and the FCC’s Universal Service Administra­tive Company (USAC), which runs E-rate.

In 2014, the FCC’s E-rate modernization gave districts more ways to acquire faster, affordable WAN access: purchasing lit fiber services, leasing dark fiber or building a district-owned fiber network.

Goochland County had a fiber network to four of its five schools, but one school, Byrd Elementary, lacked broadband access. The rural school relied on a point-to-point wireless network that topped out at 100 megabits per second. In rainy or windy weather, speeds dropped to 20Mbps.


County Public Schools saved by building its own fiber network versus hiring a provider to build a network and leasing services over a 20-year period

Source: Goochland County Public Schools, EducationSuperHighway

Previously, an ISP offered to build a fiber network to the school for more than $1 million. The ISP would own the network, and Goochland County’s school division would lease it. But through an RFP as part of the division’s E-rate application, a vendor offered to build a division-owned fiber network for about $500,000.

Martin explained to his superintendent that E-rate would pay 60 percent. But thanks to new E-rate rules, if the state paid 10 percent, E-rate would match another 10 percent. “He was behind me 100 percent,” Martin recalls.

Goochland’s school division asked the county to cover their portion. If E-rate and the state paid 80 percent, the county only had to invest $50,000. Martin and the superintendent met with the county administrator, county IT director and county board of supervisors. 

They quickly agreed to support the project, which also had benefits beyond the school district.

MORE FROM EDTECH: See how schools are taking advantage of E–Rate's category one funding.

County Officials See Broad Benefits in a New K–12 Fiber Network

With the county on board, Martin, the superintendent and county leaders lobbied the state legislature and the governor’s office for the extra 10 percent. 

EducationSuperHighway helped Martin with its E-rate application by producing a cost-benefit analysis showing that it would be cheaper for the division to build its own fiber network than to go through a WAN serv­ice provider.

When E-rate approved the project, the state gave Goochland County Public Schools and other divisions the additional 10 percent they needed.

Peter Martin enlisted several stakeholders to bring a fiber network to Goochland County (Va.) Public Schools. Photography by: Zaid Hamid.

With funding in place, the division hired a contractor to build a 12.2-mile fiber network, completed in May 2018. On one end, the county used a Cisco core switch, while the division installed a Cisco Meraki MS350 switch at the elementary school.

The effort succeeded, Martin says, because of good communication among everyone involved. “It’s all about relationship building,” he says.

Now, the teachers, students and staff at Byrd Elementary are reaping the benefits. “We have bandwidth to spare,” Martin says. “With more stability, our teachers have more confidence in embracing technology as they plan lessons that require the internet.”

Cost Savings Help Pay for Wi-Fi on Minnesota School Buses

In Minnesota, Brainerd Public Schools recently invested in mobile Wi-Fi hotspots for its 85 school buses, letting students connect their devices to the internet and do homework while they travel to and from school.

The district’s Board of Education approved the project, which cost $30,000 in equipment and another $30,000 a year for service. Even though the technology wasn’t eligible for E-rate funds, it was an easy sell for several reasons, says Sarah Porisch, the district’s technology director.

First, the board recognized the importance of internet access, particularly because some students are low-income and others live in rural areas where broadband is not available. 

The board also supported Wi-Fi on buses because the IT department was able to fund the project without increasing its budget. The district doesn’t invest in new technology unless it’s financially sustainable, Porisch says.

When she arrived four years ago, she received a bump in the budget to buy new laptops for teachers. But she can purchase other technology only by reducing costs and spending money wisely, she says.

To do so, staff eliminated unused software subscriptions. Their purchase of new computers and classroom projectors saved money because it eliminated the cost of repairing outdated equipment. 

Porisch leases devices, instead of buying, and she’s replaced most computer labs with carts of Chromebooks, which saves $30,000 per lab.

As for building a business case for LAN and Wi-Fi upgrades, the board supports upgrades every year. E-rate covers 70 percent, and the district pays the rest. What helps is regular reminders about the network’s importance, including Porisch’s annual state of technology presentation.

“When the network works, people forget what it’s like when it didn’t work. So we have to remind them that it’s all working in the background,” she says.


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