Move to Digital Records Saves Time, Money For Texas District

By Adam Galvan Director of Information Systems

Late this summer local news stories appeared about two astute taxpayers who discovered Edgewood Independent School District administrators are paid more than their peers despite working in one of the poorest district in Texas. I run Edgewood's information technology department and I could have told those folks that the $2,000 in extra earnings some administrators make is being returned to rate payers several hundred times over each year through a project those same administrators are working hard on.

Edgewood was spending more than it should, but on its paperwork, not its people. Running public schools is all about paperwork, and when a district grows 34 percent in 10 years, as we have, the people keeping track of it all—the administrators—get swamped. And as our two astute taxpayers bear out, we have to be ready to account for every cent we spend.

School districts can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars keeping track of it all and still not keep up. At Edgewood, Accounts Payable was so behind in processing invoices that Apple Computers suspended our order deliveries. In a few cases Human Resources was keeping staff on salary for months after they retired. Perhaps the worst problem was that Edgewood had skilled administrators moving paperwork back and forth when they were hired to handle much more important matters, like keeping up with the meteoric growth of our district.

When I was named Information Systems Director at Edgewood ISD in 2010, I knew we needed an enterprise content management system if we were to truly fix these problems, rather than just hiring more staff to support an out-dated records management system. An ECM is a centralized, computerized records management system that automates as much of the documentation as possible in as many of the district’s departments and schools as possible. I also knew installing such a system can be very disruptive, requiring the commitment of an entire district and most importantly the backing of senior staff and elected officials. Fortunately, I had the latter when I started at Edgewood. The former took a little more convincing.

After considering several products that might do the job, I turned my attention to the Laserfiche system already in place in Human Resource storing various personnel records. I knew HR was only using about 10 percent of the system’s capacity, but I was not so sure how the other 90 percent could untangle the thicket of process and paperwork in HR and the rest of the district’s administrative operations. So I reached out to our Laserfiche reseller, Bryant, TX-based SMARTfiles for help because I wanted local expertise for the tech support I knew we would need to get the project off the ground.

We started with onboarding new hires in HR. Under the old system, new hires would fill out various paper forms that would then be copied and distributed to the necessary parties for review and amendment if necessary. More forms were filled out and added as the growing packet of material made its way through the onboarding process and back to HR. By the time the new staffer's paperwork was complete, that individual would be celebrating two months on the job.

New employee job applications are now reviewed by HR on a 42" TV connected to an iPad. If they are deemed complete, two more electronic forms are then generated for the new hire to fill out and sign electronically. When those steps are complete the system generates a contract that the new employee also signs electronically. All this can be done with the applicant in district offices or remotely if need be.

Once all the documents are signed, the entire packet is stored in a new folder created under the new hire’s name along with the new employee’s company email address. Other vital information such as date, department, and title are automatically copied from the finished documents and used to index the new personnel file within the Laserfiche folder structure, greatly easing future access. At the same time, an email is sent to the risk management and payroll departments notifying them of the new district employee, while a copy of the district handbook and copies of all the onboarding records are automatically emailed to the employee. The whole process requires just a few hours of staff time.

The startup work with SMARTfiles in HR made tackling records management in our athletic department much easier to undertake with many fewer calls for tech support. The annual paperwork behind students signing up for school sports involved a 16-page packet for students and parents to fill out. This packet was then filed in a manila folder in what was then a continually expanding collection of metal filing cabinets. The district processes 4,000 of these packets each year. With the automatic workflow we have since built, the 16 pages of paper are reduced to a four-page PDF. If the student is already in the system, all the vital information from the previous records are automatically transferred to any new forms being used. The PDFs can be filled out and signed online, and then they are automatically filed in Laserfiche with the vital information about that student automatically being recorded and used to index the new file, just as we did in HR. Moreover, athletic department staff can now access those records from iPads in and on the field, which is most often where they work.

When the other departments saw the work we had done in HR and Athletics, they wanted to get involved as well. Since that time, paperwork processes in Accounts Payable, Payroll, Security Technology and the Pupil Personnel departments, to name a few, have all been automated. Accounts Payable was a particular coup as 2,800 purchases per month are now routed automatically from purchase request through to automatic archiving of the PDF record of purchase in Laserfiche.

Since then similarly complex administrative functions have been automated to one extent or another, and more are coming onboard every day. In AP we’ve built an online dashboard showing which invoices have not been paid in 30 days, 30-60 days, or 90+ days. Apple has resumed deliveries.

An automatic function within Laserfiche that now allows each department to eliminate one of the last and most stubborn vestiges of paper in our offices: the form. Electronic forms technology allows staff to create and/or modify on their mobile devices or PCs the forms they work with every day, and then enter those forms into the automated workflows we have been building for the past two years. Now coaches use electronic forms for buying baseballs while an after-school film club advisor uses electronic forms for throwing a pizza party.

It's difficult to give a precise return-on-investment for this effort. However, some figures are clear: copier paper orders have been cut by 50 percent while copier ink purchases have been reduced by $250,000 annually. Our dramatically reduced copier use prompted the district to renegotiate our copier service contract and we’re now saving another $30,000 per month, during the summer months, in reduced per-click charges.

As the majority of administrative departments have adopted electronic workflows and forms, tablets and televisions are now required for conducting all administrative meetings. Mobile devices now play a vital role in day-to-day operations as staff can access district-related documents anywhere, anytime.

At the same time, security options built into the automated workflows restrict staff access to only those documents they are authorized to view and work on. That authorized access can also be changed automatically at any point during the workflow, as added information may come with greater access restrictions. The system also automatically creates a record of who accesses which documents and when.

Annual employee contract renewals used to mean the school board president and district superintendent had to sign 1,800 contract renewals each year. Now, one electronic signature from both is all that is required for all those contracts. This same convenience extends to many other areas of administration. Sometimes we would have 15 manual signatures for one paper transaction. With electronic forms and workflow we’ve cut the required number of signatures by at least half for most transactions.

In two years we have built more than 200 workflows in 33 departments. 80 of those workflows are initiated by electronic forms, creating a genuinely paperless environment. Yet our best work may still lie ahead. The close collaboration between IT and department staff is continually uncovering new improvements and efficiencies.

We have not yet moved this technology into the curriculum side of district operations, but we have the process down pat and know electronic workflow and forms can work their magic anywhere. I’m hoping that pushing Laserfiche into the academic departments is my next assignment at Edgewood.

The district’s efforts in automating administration have been recognized for the past two years with the Texas Association of School Business Officers’ Performance Excellence Program Award. In June I was invited to speak to hundreds of educators at EduTECH, the largest annual education technology conference and exhibition outside the U.S. Perhaps someday, when this technology becomes as commonplace as our rapidly vanishing metal filing cabinets once were, taxpayers will start to understand and appreciate how spending a little extra on administration in the short run can save a great deal of their money in the long run.