CoSN 2018: 10 Tips for Running IT in a Small School District

Communication, creative budgeting, visibility and relationship-building are key, two Illinois IT leaders say.

In a small school district, an IT leader is more than just the steward of technologies.

I wear a bunch of different hats and have several jobs throughout the day, many of which aren’t even IT-related,” said Maureen Chertow Miller, technology director for Winnetka (Ill.) Public Schools District 36. “Most recently I have become my district’s enrollment guru.”

Miller joined Nancy Battaglia, the technology director for Skokie (Ill.) School District 68, to offer advice to other small IT shops in K–12 school districts during the third day of CoSN’s annual meeting in Washington, D.C.

Miller and Battaglia had 10 suggestions for IT leaders in small districts:

1. Be Visible and Build Trust with Other Education Leaders

IT leaders need to get out to schools as much as possible and foster relationships with teachers, staff and administrators. Team members should do the same.

“Don’t assume you’re going to have the time to do it. Block it out on your calendar,” Miller said. “Your team has to understand that teaching and learning comes first and you’re there to support that. Always keep your doors open.”

2. Build the Capacity of Your School's IT Team

A small district may have a small IT team — sometimes just one person. Principals, secretaries and teachers can provide support in these situations.

Set clear expectations for all of those people who are a part of the team, Miller said. Battaglia, who works in a district with four buildings and 1,800 students, added: “Make sure to cross-train team members to fill in if someone is out, even if it’s work at a higher level.”

3. Stay on Top of Issues with Strategic Communication, Outreach

Stay ahead of any issues and communicate them in a timely fashion.

At Winnetka (Ill.) Public Schools District 36 — which consists of 1,600 students in five schools — the central office team writes a blog post every other week to update staff. They also create a monthly flyer for the community and hold quarterly meetings with parents where they talk about technical issues such as social media, data privacy and innovations.

“Get a direct hashtag, start tweeting,” Miller said. “Tell your story around that. Get the word out.”

4. Don’t Immediately Say No to IT Requests

Try “Yes, and” instead. Budget constraints and other issues often force IT leaders to think “No” when a technology request is first made. But, that doesn’t have to be the case, Battaglia said.

“Try to say ‘yes, and’ more,” she said. “Remember, you want to help educators find a solution. Try to find alternatives.”

5. Adopt Creative Budgeting Practices

Speaking of budgeting, Miller and Battaglia said the people who control school funding are impressed when they can see the district’s blueprint for spending.

“It’s easier to sell a budget if they can see you planning ahead. Show your refresh cycle,” Miller said. “Forecast out for the big systems. Let your supervisor or your district know you have a plan and make sure you have a static line for technology refreshment in your budget.”

Battaglia said money often can be found by reallocating funds.

“We wanted to do a one-to-one program in my last district, but there was no money,” she said. Instead of replacing the computer lab, which was in the district’s plans, Battaglia spent the money to go one-to-one with tablets. Small districts also can resell equipment, take advantage of E-rate funds and evaluate systems yearly for redundancies or other unnecessary spending.

“Don’t keep rolling stuff in because you’ve always done it,” Miller said.

6. Be Stealthy About Tech Training

Battaglia said she often visits schools and offers tips on Google Chrome or Microsoft Word while chatting with staff or teachers.

You have to sneak in the learning,” she said. “There are little shortcuts or tricks that maybe you take for granted or think is ordinary that they think is awesome and can really help them.”

7. Put Students Tech Needs First

Help everyone you come in contact with understand why you’re introducing technology.

You’re never going to make everyone happy,” Miller said. “Always think about the kids and what they need and making it happen for them, and you’ll be right. The big ‘why’ for all that we do is putting kids first.”

8. Build Your Network to Spark IT Creativity

Even a one-person shop can have a network of people to bounce ideas off of.

“Find your network and take advantage of it,” Battaglia said. “Hone in on a couple of people you feel safe talking with.”

Miller and Battaglia suggested getting coffee with colleagues, finding a Twitter group or hashtag to follow or joining a Listserv, a mailing list of people with similar interests.

9. Standardize Systems to Cut Down on Dysfunction

Many small K–12 IT shops find that old systems can be disorganized. When new technology comes in, it’s important to streamline new systems, Miller said.

“Get things all under one roof as much as possible,” she said.

10. Rely On Good Vendor Relationships

Vendors can be trusted partners, but it’s important not to get stuck in a bad relationship.

“Shop around through your network,” Miller said. “Get advice and reviews from them. You’re protecting your district’s money, so you need to put that first.”

Catch all of our coverage of CoSN 2018 on EdTech’s conference landing page.

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