Mission Possible

[Disclosure: Miguel Guhlin and Patti Holub work in the same district.]

Patti Holub serves as executive director of technology initiatives and support for the 56,000-student San Antonio Independent School District in San Antonio, Texas. School CIO spoke with Holub about project management in K–12 school districts.

Q. What is your role as executive director for technology initiatives and support?

A. I oversee all technology procurement issues and management of district-wide technology projects. I also oversee our networking department; telecommunications, which includes our telephone and data cabling systems; and our on-site technical support, systems integration, and all our helpdesk areas.

Q. How do you undertake project management in your district?

A. We currently staff a department of three project managers. We consider anything that requires school board approval as a technology project. A technology project could be the purchase of computers, or it could be the automation of a system within the district (e.g. a gradebook system or a point-of-sale system for cafeterias). Since we have so many schools (92), any purchase typically requires coordination. Whenever a vendor service or equipment purchase is made, we step in to facilitate access to campuses and take care of logistics. We answer the five Ws—who, what, when, where, and why—then let everybody know what is going on and what their roles are.

Q. Which management application(s) do you use?

A. Microsoft Project—with its timeline and chart features—enables us to identify critical milestones. We do project reports based on an in-house template once a week. Stakeholders know what the status of the project is, what tasks are pending, who is responsible for what, what their action items are, and when those are due. MS Project allows us to export timelines and other data to Excel for use by people who lack MS Project access.

Q. What are the challenges of project management in K–12 school districts?

A. There are three challenges: 1) varied funding sources; 2) complementary missions; and 3) up-front involvement. Varied funding sources can include grants, state technology, and local funds. Each has its own deadlines when equipment or services need to be received and expenditures made. Asset management is of increasing concern, depending on the funding source.

Project management can have two complementary missions—meeting the education needs of students and taking care of administrative details. Project management lets the people in education focus on the students, not worry about the details. When unattended to, details are what halt or kill projects. Finally, people realize we're here to help and want us to help at the beginning, rather than the end, of a project.

Q. What are some of your current projects?

A. A large project is a special education half-million dollar computer purchase and deployment to all 92 campuses. Other projects include placing Active Directory and SMS on new equipment, as well as overseeing all of our E-Rate applications (over 40 million dollars over the last 8 years) and following guidelines.

Q. Do you try to balance low-risk and higher-risk projects?

A. When it comes to balancing, it is about making sure each manager has no more than one high-risk project. Since we are on the receiving end of things, we lack control over projects that we get. When there is a high risk of something detrimental occurring, we work to resolve it.

Q. What benefits has this approach had in your district?

A. The biggest impact is getting the stakeholders all involved up front and building a management team that works together from beginning through implementation and deals with the logistics of deploying a project. Others see that we want their project to be a success as much as they do.

Q. What's your advice for other districts interested in project management?

A. I highly advise having project management people dedicated within school districts, especially large school districts. There are many projects and details that take staff away from their regular duties. If you can establish a staff focused on project management, it relieves instructional staff of that burden.

Miguel Guhlin is president of TCEA's TEC-SIG and director of instructional technology at the San Antonio Independent School District. Check out Miguel's blog at www.techlearning.com/blog.

Click here to listen to a podcast of this interview. (3.32MB)