Schools are an indispensable part of our society, deeply tied to the economy, with an undisputed role in building the nation’s future. One thing the Great Recession of the mid-2000s taught us is that an infusion of federal stimulus funds may have been helpful, but when those funds dried up, state and local revenues declined, leaving districts in a quandary. Economically, the housing bubble burst, local governments suffered from loss of property taxes, and state governments saw declines in income tax and sales tax revenue, so the Federal government provided a lifeline with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), supporting states with funding for public education since most spent at least half of their budgets on education.
All indications are that we are headed into another challenging time for public education budgets. While student learning may not be affected directly during a recession, non-instructional services often are notably impacted, including transportation, utilities, student services, student activities, and technology. Why? When budgets are tight, leaders endeavor to keep cuts as far away from the classroom as possible. Thus, reductions are made in “nice to have” programs and projects, such as new technology, equipment upgrades, supplemental programs, professional development, and non-classroom staff, many of which are the backbone of the technology department.
Don’t be fooled: the recent boom in demand for technology services during distance learning will not exempt technology departments from difficult budget conversations.
What can school technology leaders do to recession-proof their departments and programs?
Be transparent about the costs of maintaining technology. Tech is expensive, but it’s more expensive without a plan. Establish and communicate clear, written standards, and maintain a clearly budgeted refresh cycle for all standard equipment. This empowers strategic investments in the hardware and software needed, and helps to leverage any bulk buying discounts.
Identify positions as essential. Many positions will be evaluated when funds get tight, so proactively reviewing all technology department roles and their impact on essential services to students and school sites is critical. Consider creating (and sharing with district leadership) a matrix of responsibilities to clearly identify which positions support which programs. This will help demonstrate the impact of any future budget cuts.
Tie spending to essential student programs. COVID taught us that the use of technology is a critically important learning tool. Whether used to deliver core instruction with digital materials or to deliver an assessment system, technology budgets should be positioned by their support for essential student learning. For example, keeping to a refresh schedule may be much less expensive than the cost of additional tech support positions to maintain outdated equipment.
Consider multi-year contracts. During a recession, vendors may experience increased costs and pass these on to districts. Carefully negotiated, multi-year contracts can help lock in subsequent years at a reduced or stable rate. Contracts that should be explored include assessment programs, student information and data systems, core IT systems, and supplemental instructional programs used until a curriculum adoption takes place. Money up front can be a bargaining chip for reduced rates into the future to stay with those providers, assuming that any indirect cost to change to a competitor don’t outweigh the savings.
Reduce overhead through cooperative agreements. If you haven’t already joined a co-op, a board resolution with a commitment to participate starts the process. The advantage is that competitive prices can be obtained without a lot of haggling or time-consuming negotiations.
Cross-train IT staff. When the cuts do come, make sure you’re ready. Identify all services that keep your operation running, and do the best you can to apply the 1+2 rule: one system owner with primary responsibility, and two individuals trained who are ready to step in if necessary. Consider entering a “just-in-case” ad hoc services contract with a partner vendor or managed service provider. Responsible vendors will work with you on this at no cost until you need their services to get you through a tough time.
With a recession comes uncertainty. After the last two-and-a-half years of COVID-induced challenges, money remains a hot topic in public education. Recession-influenced spending cuts can significantly impact a technology department. Because the ill-effects of a recession through reduced spending can be felt for years to come, proactively protecting positions, investing in refresh programs, and maximizing remaining funds through long term contracts and partnerships are great ways to mitigate the consequences.