Former CTOs Sheryl Abshire, Frankie Jackson and Donna Williamson shared sustainability planning strategies with ISTELive 2022 attendees.

Jun 29 2022

ISTELive 2022: 7 Sustainability Planning Tips for K–12 Technology Leaders

Veteran technology leaders share solutions to manage the looming recession and expected drop-off in pandemic funding.

Many school districts are rushing to spend state and federal dollars allocated to ed tech before losing that money for good over the next two years. However, some may not have a sustainability plan in place.

This lack of planning is a huge concern for Donna Williamson, who has served as a CTO and educational technology leader since 1982 and now works with the Consortium for School Networking’s Early Career K–12 CTO Academy.

She shared her thoughts on how technology leaders can handle the coming funding cliff during the “Shock and Awe: Technology Strategies and Tactics” session at ISTELive 2022. Williamson, along with her two co-presenters, who are also former CTOs, shared seven best practices for ensuring that funding for student technology needs are met long into the future.

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1. Build Capacity for Sustainability Over Time

Sheryl Abshire, the former CTO for Calcasieu Parish Schools in Louisiana, urged attendees to “think about your funding limits now. If you’re not working with your board now, do not scare them by telling them, ‘Oh, by the way, we have a refresh next year.’ Build capacity for sustainability over time and prepare them for those funding spikes.”

Frankie Jackson, the former CTO for Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District in Texas and current director of strategic initiatives with Texas Education Technology Leaders, said this type of planning involves having a vision and translating that vision into overarching goals. “You’ll have to figure out how to take available funding and translate that into learning objectives,” she said.

To be viable, a strategic plan needs to look across the organization, from top to bottom, Jackson added, and also needs to consider key performance indicators and metrics. “If you’re not able to translate results into reality through accomplishments and goals, then funding will very much go away,” she said.

RELATED: These best practices can balance post-pandemic budgets.

2. Take Technology Lifecycle Planning Seriously

For those who have no idea what their technology inventory looks like, now is the time to find out, Williamson said. “Statistically, you’ll never get better than 80 percent of your inventory being accurate,” she said. “But it is critical as we talk about sustainability that you take stock of your core equipment, core services, core software, and find out what you have and when you bought it.”

It’s also important for to determine how long existing equipment is going to last and to understand the impact it has on learning, she said. Once schools have a fairly accurate view of their inventory, IT leaders can begin lifecycle planning.

“You’re going to make the board choke unless you lay out a plan,” Williamson said. “You can’t replace everything at the same time, and the fact is, some devices will get replaced early, some on time and some will be held over.”

She said she knew of a technology director who went to the school board with a budget of 10 years that accounted for inflation. Doing so allowed the board to see and accommodate the big funding curve years.

3. Don’t Ignore the Total Cost of Ed Tech Ownership

According to Jackson, a good sustainability plan also requires projecting into the future. Getting “a true cost of the ownership of technology can end up saving your job. It’ll certainly make you more successful,” she said.

She used a glacier as an illustration, pointing to the line above the water. “That’s the classroom, teachers, computers in use, connectivity and printers. But underneath is 85 percent of your costs,” she said. “We need to look at maintenance, we need to look at replacement for each piece of tech. Those are the costs that we as CTOs must explore.”

LEARN: How routine tech refreshes can save your district money.

4. Help School Boards Make Intentional Cuts by Finding Savings

For school districts facing tight budgets, Jackson said, technology leaders need to make the hard choice of helping school boards make intentional cuts. Savings can be found if technology leaders look for software they may not be using. Jackson said she was shocked to learn that school districts have millions of educational apps in their arsenals. 

“Don’t pay a lot of money for something that’s not being used,” she said. “Look for providers who can paint a picture of what digital engagement looks like, and share how the product is connected to educational attainment.”

DIVE DEEPER: Here’s how data analytics tools can show ed tech’s impact.

5. Prove the Value of Your Ed Tech Investments

Session presenters said that another challenge technology leaders often struggle with is proving the value of their technology investments.

The fact is, “you can’t make the assumption that everyone will see the value of an investment,” Williamson said.

This is why technology directors must become particularly skilled in “things you might not be able to quantify. These things may be qualitative in nature,” Jackson said.

Frankie Jackson
How do you prove that a student has increased confidence or has become a better collaborator? You’ve got to learn how to share those heartfelt stories.”

Frankie Jackson Director of Strategic Initiatives, Texas Education Technology Leaders

She added that technology directors need to become better storytellers who can talk about some of the problems teachers, students and the district were facing and how technology helped solve those problems.

“How do you prove that a student has increased confidence or has become a better collaborator?” Jackson asked. “You’ve got to learn how to share those heartfelt stories. You’ve got to go to the campuses and take pictures and share those stories with your superintendent and your board of education. This can often gain you additional funding because you’ve shown the impact of this investment.”

DISCOVER: How technology leaders can prepare K–12 students for a digital future.

6. Use Technology and Turn to Partners to Work Smarter

With the growth in responsibilities that today’s CTOs hold, presenters said it was important that these leaders use technology to help manage some of the work and reassure school boards and parents.

With things shifting “exponentially quickly” in technology, Abshire said, it is imperative that technology leaders have a solid understanding of modern technology trends.

The presenters also pointed out the value of having trusted partners to help manage cybersecurity and single sign-on.

“Parents are more embedded in teaching and learning than ever before,” Abshire said. “And we’ve got to assure them that their kids are in a safe environment and that their data is safe. In the school districts, we’ve got it all — bank routing numbers, other financial information, children's health information — and it’s all a big deal.”

RELATED: Use these tech adjustments to deal with staff shortages.

She said having the right partners can definitely help, but leaders today “need to use technology to work smarter. Let the technology do the work for you.”

Williamson agreed. “Finding solutions and strategies that can automate things for you will help in many ways,” she said. “One of the characteristics of a good leader is that you can go on vacation and things don’t fall apart.”

They also noted that single sign-on and identity and access management solutions can truly improve efficiency for K–12 technology staff.

7. Plan for People First and Technology Last

Finally, Williamson pointed to Rod Houpe, a former CIO/CTO and now director of business development for Education Networks of America, who said, “If you’re going to be a successful CTO today, this is the order that you need to think about things: people, process and then the technology.”

Williamson admitted that in previous years, this was not a common approach in K–12 technology departments.

“It used to be that we would start with the technology, then the people and then if we had time, we’d think about the process,” Williamson said. “Those days are over. If you follow Rod's way of thinking, I think you’re going to find a lot greater success.”

Check out the Digital Promise Sustainability Toolkit for more on this topic. 

Keep up with EdTech: Focus on K–12’s coverage on our ISTELive page and via Twitter with the hashtag #ISTELive.

Photo: Taashi Rowe

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