Dwayne Alton, CIO, Lee County School District, works with the finance team to make strategic technology upgrades.

Oct 22 2021

Amid Tight Budgets, Districts Are Using IT Investments to Boost the Bottom Line

Instead of driving costs, some school districts find that strategic IT investments in the cloud and administrative systems can save money.

Lee County School District in Florida faced a crisis: Its legacy phone system operator was ending support for the product. That meant making a big investment in a new system. However, instead of the anticipated cost drain, transitioning to a new system turned out to be a boon to the district’s bottom line.

The cost-saving secret is one that CIO Dwayne Alton loves to share. The district turned to Ambit Solutions, which not only delivered a Voice over IP telephony system, but also big savings.

“Once we switched over to VoIP, our operating-cost reduction was about 90 percent this year,” he says. And after the initial savings, ongoing operating expenses are expected to level off at about 70 percent below previous levels.

That has allowed Lee County School District to direct some of those savings into other critical services, such as boosting its cybersecurity posture.

Alton’s experience is one shared by many school districts. While IT investments are typically seen only as debits to a school district’s budget, they can in fact drive significant cost savings.

A Cloud Solution Drives District Savings

In Mississippi, Vicksburg Warren School District’s recent cloud migration helps to demonstrate the point.

“We took our whole network infrastructure and migrated it to Cisco’s Meraki cloud solution,” says Wade Grant, the district’s director of educational technology. “It has all the management of the network in the cloud. You open up a web interface, and whether you’re in Timbuktu or Kalamazoo, you’re sitting there managing the network remotely.”

Vicksburg Warren’s investment in the flexible cloud network comes with a reduction in ongoing operational costs that will drive significant net savings in the long run.

“It saves a ton of money over time, because you’re able to also manage a lot of infrastructure more effectively. Your access points, your camera systems — so many of these things can be controlled over the cloud network infrastructure,” he says. “That means you’re actually able to shut things down at the end of the day, and those savings add up over time.”

To help layer on even more savings, Grant turned to E-rate funding to cover about 75 percent of the cost of the project.

The school also invested in Chromebooks, another move that has led to significant cost savings. In a local server environment, “you have all the Active Directory management overhead that you have to pay somebody to manage,” Grant says. But with Chromebooks’ cloud-based administration, “I’ve got a part-timer doing that for me on a contractual basis. We upgraded to the enterprise version of the Google Workspace environment to do that, but that’s pennies to the dollar compared with what I was spending on managing and utilizing Active Directory.”

Wade Grant
Your access points, your camera systems — so many of these things can be controlled over the cloud network infrastructure.”

Wade Grant Director of Educational Technology, Vicksburg Warren School District

Invest in Long-Term Ed Tech Visions to Save

To leverage IT investment as a cost-saving mechanism, districts may need to rethink their relationship to technology. “School districts all have limited resources, and technology can be a really critical component in driving that overall cost containment,” says Amy McLaughlin, director of the Consortium for School Networking’s Smart Education Networks by Design initiative.

Alton agrees. “Usually, when they’re looking to reduce budgets, district leaders come to each department and basically give them a target. They’ll say, ‘Cut this much.’ But that’s not very strategic.”

Instead, he takes a different approach. “We went into this talking about a longer-term vision,” Alton says. “We said that sometimes you have to invest funds in order to see those savings.”

Experts point to a number of areas where technology leaders could make that case. Transitioning to the cloud, for instance, could reduce real estate costs if it means shedding a data center, and can also reduce operating expenses for maintenance, cooling and power consumption.

DIVE DEEPER: How can school districts successfully shift to the cloud? 

Vicksburg Warren also found that beefing up its mechanical systems by investing in digital controls to manage HVAC operations also offered long-term savings.

Investing in more efficient back-office systems is another area where districts can save big. “There’s this entire component of education that is administration, things like maintenance of grades, student information systems,” McLaughlin says. “All of that stuff is expensive. It’s labor intensive, it’s people intensive. If technology can make those processes more efficient, then there’s an actual bottom-line impact.”

Build Strategic Relationships with Partners

In seeking funding for such efforts, IT does well to align with strategic partners. In Alton’s case, CDW’s involvement was key to helping realize the cost-saving potential of a VoIP conversion.

70%

The annual reduction in operating expenses that Lee County School District expects to achieve by replacing its conventional phone system with VoIP telephony

Source: Lee County School District

“They’ve gotten to know our organization over the course of several years, and they knew I couldn’t pitch something with high operating costs,” Alton says. In addition to proposing the net-win plan, CDW also helped alleviate concerns from the financial office about whether the project could be completed in the two-year time frame.

To recast IT as a driver of efficiency, rather than cost, it’s important for technology leaders to forge a strong working relationship with their counterparts on the financial side.

“IT leaders can learn how to build a business case, how to tell the story,” McLaughlin says. “Often the conversation sounds like, ‘Oh, just give us the money. We’ll make it happen.’ But as IT becomes less of a mystery, people want to know the whole story. The financial people want to know what the long-term impact is going to be.”

Alton maintains strong ties by showing an ongoing concern for the financial piece of the puzzle.

“We do our roadmapping for several years out so there will be clear expectations,” he says. “And we operate IT itself as a very lean organization overall.” All that helps to make Alton and his department a trusted partner.

Vicksburg Warren’s Grant also makes a point of maintaining personal ties to the district’s financial executives. “We have lunch when possible, and we sit down and talk about these things. We tour the schools, actually get out in the field together, so there is a shared frame of reference,” he says.

With that relationship solidly in place, he’s able to scrutinize any potential IT investment from a cost-savings perspective. Even small savings can add up, Grant says, and he looks for those benefits anywhere he can find them.

MORE ON EDTECH: K–12 IT leader discusses innovating on a small budget and limited staff.

Technology spending “is like a big salami, and we’re always looking to shave off another slice,” he says. With strategic investments to improve efficiency and reduce operational expenses, “all those little slices add up to something much bigger over time.”

Photography by Brian Tietz