After retiring from the U.S. Army, Technology Director Joe Phillips came home to Kansas City Public Schools.

Mar 26 2020

Q&A: Joe Phillips on Boosting Efficiency Through Technology

A streamlined technology department saves districts money, but it also supports broad operational and academic success, Joe Phillips says.

Joe Phillips’s professional background isn’t typical of a K–12 technology director. He has 16 years of active duty experience in the U.S. Army, serving in roles such as CIO, chief of HR and chief of staff, earning a medical retirement after he was injured in Afghanistan. He ran a bakery with his wife and operated a corporate housing company. That business experience informs his work to maintain a zero-based budget for the technology department at Kansas City Public Schools in Missouri.

Phillips talked with EdTech about developing an efficient, budget-conscious technology program that supports operational and academic goals.

EDTECH: How does your business ­background factor into your ­current role as ­technology director?

PHILLIPS: Kansas City schools have a really excellent CFO, Linda Quinley, whom I report to. She was a driving force behind bringing somebody in who could do a zero-based budget for the technology department. I worked very closely with her on formulating our ­budget with the goal of becoming as ­efficient and effective as we could without asking the school board for too much more money for the big, heavy-lifting projects that we were going to have to implement to get the department and the district up to the 21st century.

EDTECH: What were the first challenges you identified and began tackling when you started your current role?

PHILLIPS: There was no inventory of anything. Nobody could tell me how many network switches we had, what servers we had, how many devices we had. And I had no idea where the money that came into my department was going every year. The way the department worked before is somebody would say they had some money, and they would figure out how to spend it. No effort was put into forecasting or coming up with a five-year technology plan or anything like that.

I sat down with my assistant directors, who both joined the department after I did, to figure out where the money was going. We pulled every single purchase order in our enterprise resource planning system that had our department code. We found a lot of duplicates, a lot of schools buying similar products. We started cutting and shaving and really figuring out what our technology footprint needed to look like, and what our budget actually needed to look like for what we wanted to accomplish every year.

EDTECH: How long did that take?

​​​​​​​PHILLIPS: That process took about 90 full days of daily work. Eventually, we came up with a five-year technology plan, which we took to the superintendent’s cabinet and to the board and got approved. Now the board knows what projects we want to accomplish each year. When we go ask for money, they now know why.

EDTECH: How does outdated technology ­factor into that plan?

​​​​​​​PHILLIPS: When we have 15-year-old technology, we’re way out of sync. But we don’t just make a change to make that change. We make changes so teachers can teach better, principals can run our schools better, and our food service and custodians can run their operations better. The technology department is here to make sure that every department in our district can evolve and improve and reach its maximum potential.

DISCOVER: Find out how school boards see and assess classroom technology.

EDTECH: Why is it important for districts to do the sort of inventory and restructuring you oversaw for Kansas City schools?

​​​​​​​PHILLIPS: We’re a taxpayer-funded district, and we should make effective and efficient use of all of our resources. Ultimately, we need to direct everything we do toward our students and their achievement. And people in my position really should understand that you’re either behind or you’re ahead of the curve when it comes to educational technology. But you’re never going to reach the finish line because it’s constantly changing, constantly evolving.

It was also important to do an inventory to see where we were starting from and what gaps we needed to close, and to help with planning how to close them as quickly as possible. I didn’t want to just catch up to our neighboring suburban districts; I wanted to leapfrog them so that they had to turn around and try to catch up with us.

EDTECH: Why is it important to you that your district tech programs outpace those of neighboring suburban districts?

​​​​​​​PHILLIPS: When I was a student, I was part of our 40 percent mobility rate statistic. I ended up moving in with my grandparents in eighth grade because my parents were just not able to support and take care of me. Sometimes I couldn’t go to recess because I didn’t have a coat. The lunch lady, Ms. Agnes, would squirrel some lunch away for me so I could have dinner every day. I know what those challenges are and how hard it is to focus on education when everything seems to be against you.

I came home to Kansas City schools and am ensuring that when these kids walk in and have the tools they’re given, they know that we care about them and we believe in them. It’s really a great way to help them get to where they need to go.

EDTECH: What did it take to start a technology inventory analysis for Kansas City schools?

We used network scanning tools to answer questions such as, should this be on our network? What is this server doing? Why do we have so many servers? That inventory and audit supports the budget planning process because, as an example, we had 14 versions of Windows on our end user devices and we had 11 different versions of Windows on our servers throughout our district. The normal district will have one, maybe two, of each of those. We used a tool that will scan every device on your network and tell you what the device is, the warranty data on it and, if it’s a computer, what components are inside and what monitors it’s hooked up to. It will read all the servers, identify the operating system that’s on them and the operating system on every device.

EDTECH: How do you build broad support among administrators and other stakeholders for the type of changes you and your team implemented?

One of the most critical factors is to understand what my role is. I’m a technical expert and I advise on a strategic plan, a district mission and the district goals. Understanding that this position is an educational leader, not just a technology leader, really helps with the conversation.

In your role as CIO, CTO, tech director — whatever you are to your school district — you really need to understand that you’re a guide on the side rather than a sage on the stage. You can come in and be a dictator, but you’re not going to get a lot of traction. Javier Alfonso, assistant director of educational technology, and I tackled it as a team. In meetings with department heads, we said everything single purchase that has to do with technology has to go through my desk so my team and I can evaluate it. Also, we promised to provide the best customer support ever from this department. When I got here, the average ticket time was 46 days. Within my first year, we got that down to under 48 hours.

MORE ON EDTECH: Watch Joe Phillips discuss managing cybersecurity in a remote learning environment. 

EDTECH: One issue you inherited was the number of applications on the district servers. How did you address that?

All of our end users had administrative rights, which is why we had almost 1,000 applications in our environment. They could download whatever they wanted. After correcting that, we also made sure to provide better support than they’ve ever seen.

We use an acronym called RACI to gauge who should be our stakeholders and what level of stakeholder they should be.

R stands for responsible: Who is the person responsible for the project?

A is for accountable: Who is doing things for that project that actually has measurable outcomes?

C is for collaboration: Who do we need to talk to, to get feedback, to ensure they’re invested in what we’re doing and that what we’re doing aligns with the district mission, vision and strategic plan?

I is for inform: Who do we need to keep in the loop on what we’re trying to accomplish so that they’re not caught off guard?

EDTECH: What advice would you share with other IT leaders who are trying to make the kinds of changes you made in Kansas City?

Talk to people and shift your focus and your department’s focus from IT to ed tech. It’s really a difference between, are you doing IT transactions, are you making sure that things work? Or are you trying to make educational transformation happen in your district? And are you partnering with the people who need to make that happen?

The other tip is to understand what ed tech is. My definition of ed tech is helping technology impact student success. I look at the three levels of technology integration, which are learning about technology, learning from technology and learning with technology. We should be, with the ed tech lens, trying our best to get to learning with technology instead of learning about or learning from technology.

Photography by Dan Videtich

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