Down to Business

Taking cues from the corporate world can mean money saved and efficiency gained.

Across the country, public and private school districts alike are hiring CIOs and IT managers with volumes of experience in the business world. The thinking behind this trend is simple: Hire someone from the private sector and he or she will run the district's IT like a business.

For the big-city district of Chicago Public Schools (CPS), the midsize city district of Denver Public Schools (DPS), and the rural district of Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS), the move has paid huge dividends, both on and off the ledger sheet. These are their stories.

The Organizer

Prior to his arrival at Chicago Public Schools, Robert Runcie was president of Advanced Data Concepts, a technology services company.

After spending most of his career with large consulting organizations such as Accenture and Computer Sciences Corp., Robert Runcie, CIO of Chicago Public Schools, was ready for the challenge of urban education. Today, he oversees technology for a district of 435,000 students and 600 schools. Given CPS's $5 billion budget, Runcie considers it a "Fortune 250 business," and he says the secret to engineering good technology starts with the people who implement it. With this in mind, when he came aboard in 2003, he assessed the people in the organization, brought in new talent, and reassigned resources according to strengths. A network administrator who was particularly talented at security now focuses on that area, for example, and programmers who were dabbling in open source programming currently run a Linux project.

"You may have good people in the organization, but if you don't have them in the appropriate roles, you are not going to get the desired performance," says Runcie, who frequently works 12- to 14-hour days. "Before you can even think about technology or technology strategy, you need to get your people issues sorted out."

Once he had a handle on human resources, Runcie transformed the way CPS selects projects in the first place, embracing a business process model to determine the business need for every project under the sun. Specifically, the process examines the return on investment (ROI) of every move. The equation for this metric is simple: take expenditure, calculate cost savings, and amortize savings over time. If the project will pay for itself in a few years, it moves forward. If not, it is rejected outright.

One example of a project that has followed this process is the replacement of the district's 30-year-old student information management system. Begun in 2005 and slated for completion by January 2007, the Instructional Management Program and Academic Communication Tool (IMPACT) is designed to make student information more accessible, reduce paperwork, and allow teachers more instructional time with students. Runcie says the project will cost $50 million over three years and notes that it should pay for itself in time and process savings by 2010. With reductions in filing and retrieving paper alone, he estimates IMPACT will save $13 million.

Once projects like IMPACT pass the ROI test, Runcie moves them forward to an internal IT Governance Council. Comprised of a smorgasbord of teachers, administrators, parents, and technology officials, this organization is the judge and jury for almost every technology decision in the district and is responsible for ensuring that proper oversight for data and security requirements is uniformly applied. The council takes into account limited dollars and competing priorities within the organization, then decides whether a particular project is worth pursuing.

Under this decision-making paradigm, Runcie has overseen several big technology investments at CPS over the years. First was what he calls a human capital management solution, a Web-based human resources services application. Next was a centralized automated library system. Then, with the help of a grant from the Gates Foundation, came the High School Transformation Project, designed to use technology to improve the performance of Chicago-area teenagers. Finally, the district is developing its own student information system as well as an instruction management program and academic communication tool.

"We're working with vendors on these, but by and large we're implementing this stuff ourselves," Runcie says of the two most recent efforts. "Because no vendors have done anything of this scale, we've taken products and enhanced them to be able to perform and provide the kind of functionality necessary to perform in a large urban school district."

The Consultant

Once a consultant, always a consultant. That could be the slogan for Ed Freeman, who joined Denver Public Schools as CIO/CTO in 2003 after 25 years of working in a variety of industries. Freeman managed an IT group for the City of Los Angeles, taught systems analysis and design at the University of California at Los Angeles, and provided "Virtual CIO" consulting services to startups and venture capital firms. Although he had no experience running a school district IT department, Freeman's technology background and degree in psychometrics was impressive enough that DPS invited him to head IT for 73,000 students at the base of the Colorado Rockies.

CIO Ed Freeman added two new teams to DPS's IT department: quality assurance and business analysis.

Not surprisingly, Freeman approached the district from a familiar perspective: that of a consultant. First, he read up on the district and its hardware, software, and services infrastructure. Next, he held informational meetings with administrators, board members, principals, teachers, and students. During those meetings, Freeman asked constituents what they liked about their technology infrastructure, what they didn't like, and what areas they thought should be improved. He spent most of the time listening. Toward the end of each meeting, though, he gave his constituents a taste of an evolving technology vision designed to align with the goals of the district and its user communities.

"This approach made everyone comfortable because I wasn't parachuting in as a know-it-all who could tell them what their problems were and how they could be fixed," says Freeman. "From that point on, it was clear that we all were on the same team working on evolving a set of common objectives."

Based on these conversations, Freeman formulated a framework he calls the "cloud diagram." As its name suggests, the diagram depicts a "cloud" of the network and computing services available to users and outlines each user group's relationship to the cloud. For example, DPS is developing a new teacher pay-for-performance system. The cloud diagram made it very easy to show each department how its data would be used to implement various portions of this new system. With the help of this technology framework document, Freeman and his team have been able to sit down with users and show them exactly where their technology needs fit into the larger technology vision for the district.

Having a common technology vision also lets Freeman justify necessary changes to IT department structure. When he came aboard, for instance, the department lacked a quality assurance (QA) division and a strong business analysis (BA) team. These processes are important for various reasons—QA offers the design, management, and implementation of system testing, while BA is the upfront systems analysis and design work needed to define user requirements for a new system. By proving to users that such structural enhancements would enable the "cloud of services" to serve them better, Freeman has been able to garner the support necessary to add these components.

"If you get people excited enough to buy into your strategic goals, it makes it easier to make tactical changes because all of a sudden you have a common purpose," he says. "Treating our constituents like valued customers has achieved that excitement in my district."

The Turnaround Artist

Jefferson County's CIO, Marcia Bohannon, established a "client engagement" team to assist users with new processes, products, and services.

In July 2002, when Marcia Bohannon took over as CIO of Jefferson County Public Schools, an 85,000-student district in Golden, Colorado, the district's IT department was in flux. Her predecessor had resigned amid a budget controversy, and the department was reeling from layoffs. Considering that Bohannon was an aerospace engineer with no experience in a K–12 environment, the district's choice was puzzling to some. In the end, however, Bohannon proved she was the best person for the job.

When Bohannon arrived, IT was divided into four departments that managed a total of 120 projects. Bohannon swooped in and reorganized the entire superstructure, divvying up resources by technical function and according to customer focus. For example, she consolidated help desks and beefed up the district's call center, offering it as a single point of contact for all system issues. Whether users had a question about the PeopleSoft (now Oracle) human resources system, the Campus Management student information system, or the Microsoft Exchange e-mail system, they could get answers quickly and painlessly.

Next, she set up an IT Steering Committee comprised of district leadership, including the superintendent and key instructional and business administrators, to evaluate district-wide technology decisions and determine which were the most aligned with district goals.

"There is no way IT can set priorities for the entire enterprise without input from at least a committee of representative voices," Bohannon says. "What I learned from my experience in the business world is that you have to get valid processes in place so you can provide your services in a more consistent and reliable way."

That first winter, Bohannon crafted her processes for the future: plans to support a proactive department of people who value technology and the benefits it brings. With her staff she created a client engagement department to keep track of the end user experience and future needs, a project management office to coordinate the efforts of enterprise-wide projects, and a new customer support team that operates by phone and online. (To learn more, see

Bohannon's next big project is a service management implementation project using the Information Technology Infrastructure Library, a set of guidelines designed to introduce a higher level of service and accountability into the IT environment. For more information about ITIL, see With the service management project, Bohannon says she'll use the framework to help the district define what comprises a better service desk and how a new and improved set of service processes might help technicians deal more quickly with incidents and problems.

"Having that much focus on the customer is so much more of a private sector kind of thing and [is] usually found when providing services to external customers," she says. "If you can apply traditional methods usually reserved for external, revenue-producing clients, then you can make that jump into a higher level of service provision for your own internal customers."

Keeping Score

How one district's focus on ROI metrics paid off.

When the Orange County School District in northern Florida was looking for a technologist to upgrade to its SAP enterprise resource planning (ERP) software, school officials easily could have hired a technologist with corporate experience to handle the job. Instead, the district did the next best thing: It brought in the vendor itself.

That vendor came in the person of Jerry Veal, who serves as the manager of Project Passport. After extensive discussions with SAP, Orange County CIO Charles Thompson and COO Nick Gledich asked SAP to dispatch a full-time consultant to oversee the work on site. A few days later, Veal showed up.

"Jerry's the person who brings in corporate methodologies and planning methods, the guy who is teaching us everything about how to run our operation more like a business," says Gledich.

While Project Passport was geared toward improving the functionality of the ERP software in areas such as reporting, human resources, finance, and more, Veal's role soon morphed into something larger and more critical to network operation.

One of the ways in which Veal's acumen transformed traditional district practices was in planning. In the past, district officials relied on an archaic request-for-proposal process with minimal success. With Veal the district has switched to a balanced scorecard model, an ROI-oriented approach that focuses on metrics to evaluate the usefulness of a project (to learn more, see

Although Gledich and Thompson say it's still too early to put a dollar amount on the money the scorecard has saved, Gledich notes that simply having a modern, tested approach to IT planning has improved efficiencies, a big step for a district with more than 170,000 students. -MV












Best Practices: Automation

New efficiencies bring big changes to one Texas district.

Three years ago, when Scott Wright left his position in the corporate high-tech world and joined the Katy Independent School District in Katy, Texas, as executive director of technology operations, he set out to build an IT organization just like the ones from which he had come. His goals were simple: to maximize efficiency and minimize waste. His solution: automation.

To do this, he worked with vendor CDW-G to launch the Katy Management Automated Curriculum (KMAC), a Web-based curriculum system that enables teachers in all 45 schools to prep for their classes online. Today, almost all of the district's 6,000 teachers use the system to develop weekly lesson plans, pull in multimedia resources, and collaborate with other teachers and outside experts for teaching ideas. In addition, principals can log on at any time to check assessment data and more.

"The whole idea behind our technology efforts are to get people more comfortable using technology and more comfortable with the technology they use," Wright says. "That's how they do it in the corporate world. There's no reason why we can't do it [in K–12], too."

The process enables Katy's IT team to support 18,000 PCs with a staff of ten people. Furthermore, because everyone is on the same system, support is easy. If IT staffers install a new piece of software tonight, every computer in the district will have it in the morning.

While this project has transformed how teachers teach, Wright says the biggest bonus has been in the way it has changed the IT department's strategy for technology management. This success also has spawned another innovative project: a new business intelligence application called KatyNet that centralizes a variety of disparate systems into one application from which users can collect data and run reports. [Editor's note: To read a full-length interview with Scott Wright, visit the CIO Profiles section at] -MV

Tech Forum Tie In
Topic: Business Continuity

IT Disaster Planning

Houses under water, families evacuated, power down, and schools closed—these are all the sorts of emergency conditions that both Sheryl Abshire (Lake Charles, Louisiana) and Mary Baker (Broward County, Florida) have been forced to contemplate in recent years. What happens to the district's technology infrastructure in times like this? Come hear real-life stories about good planning and best practices for keeping systems up and running when disaster strikes.

Visit and click on Tech Forum Florida to learn more about this presentation on April 25 in Delray Beach.