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EDTECH: How does outdated technology factor into that plan?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.
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.