(not so) Easy Money

(not so) Easy Money

Six Technology Directors Discuss the Sorry State of Tech Expenditures in 2012

As a result of our economic crisis, school districts are required to think more strategically about money than ever before. “We can no longer fly by the seat of our pants,” says Rich Kaestner, who directs CoSN’s Total Cost of Ownership (TCO)/Value of Investment (VOI) and Green Computing initiatives. “Technology directors need to put structure around the decision-making process and do a better job of determining which projects make the most sense.”

CoSN’s VOI Leadership Initiative provides methodology and tools to help districts measure and articulate the costs and benefits of proposed technology projects.

SchoolCIO recently asked a group of technology leaders to talk about how they justify technology expenses. Here are their two cents— and then some.

SchoolCIO: Do you feel increased pressure to justify current or proposed technology expenditures?

Steve Young Steve Young: In this climate, everything is being scrutinized more. These considerations are causing all of us to make a lot of hard choices. I don’t know that it always translates into more questioning from our board or superintendents, but I’m looking very carefully at budget expenditures. I’m not going to calculate ROI for everything I’m looking at, but I do think there’s an increased need for being able to justify certain projects as budgets get leaner.

Lewis Wynn Lewis Wynn: Our budgets—like everyone else’s—have been slashed. I have to scrutinize all purchases and am forced to focus on high-priority purchases. Prioritizing my lists has become very important. In the past, if you had 100 things to do you could just start at the top and spread them out throughout the year. Now it’s a matter of working your way down the list and seeing how far you can get.

Kevin Schwartz: We’ve moved so much of our funding to bond money that I have to justify everything. I have to show all the offsets if I want to do something.

Wynn: That’s a hard place to be. If a bond doesn’t pass it’s back to the drawing board.

Alice Owen Alice Owen: I try to be very clear about our needs and always tie the expenditure specifically to instruction. We have a culture here that supports technology, so it has not been difficult for me to get things passed.

Dan Honoré Dan Honoré: In Wisconsin, it is more difficult to make any large purchases of $100,000 or more. Last year we moved to zero-based budgeting. We all start with zero and define what we want to do, why it needs to be done, and how we’ll do it. There’s also a selection process for larger projects. At this point, the district is more about maintenance than progressive, forward movement.

SchoolCIO: Are any of you required to do ROI for any projects?

Honoré: I use cost-benefit analysis, ROI, and TCO to show that major purchases are worthwhile. Unfortunately, when your ROI is 12 years out, they won’t look at the project. If I can get it within a year, then I have a good chance.

Young: We’re not required to use those tools, but like Dan said, if you can show there’s a return— and the quicker the better—you can make a good argument. If you can make a great ROI case then it’s almost a no-brainer.

Schwartz: I’m not required to do ROI, but every time I have done it it’s been helpful to at least show the offsets. Numbers help, especially if they show savings on the management and operations side.

Nancy Toll: We were one of the first pilot projects to try out CoSN’s VOI tool. We were trying to compare the effectiveness of offering our own hybrid online courses for high school students versus purchasing online courses that students would complete on their own. The tool was very helpful as it made us define our objectives for the project and how we were going to measure its success. In the end, we found that our students really like being at school, due to the social aspects and extracurricular activities, so we haven’t grown our online classes. It was very helpful to go through the process and I hope to use it again in the future.

Wynn: Here in Rockdale we’ve been really conscious of doing good ROI and TCO to make sure we understand the costs and the return. We’re moving to a cloud-based phone system simply because the cost benefits were so great we couldn’t ignore it. Even though we’d all prefer to have our phone system in-house and under our control, it’s about saving money. We’ll save even more because support and maintenance will be outsourced.

Schwartz: Budgets are so tight you have to know the ROI. There’s no wiggle room anymore. If you come up $10,000 short somewhere, that’s a trip to the board.

Kevin Schwartz Honoré: There is a lot more pressure to get it right the first time.

SchoolCIO: Are the vendors working with you more, helping you determine ROI?

Wynn: I find that the vendors are being very competitive. It’s impacting their bottom line a lot so it gives you a bit more of an edge. They understand they need to give a good price to get the job.

Honoré: We are required to do an RFP for anything over $10,000. Usually I can work with my vendors by asking them to get it under $10,000 so I don’t have to do a full RFP and take an additional two months.

Young: RFPs are where I think I’ve seen the biggest change. If you do an RFP for iPads there’s only one vendor. But when there’s an RFP, we can leverage the competition. It’s been so price competitive among vendors that’s our district has benefited. When we can fund a project we’ve been able to get some really aggressive pricing.

Nancy Toll SchoolCIO: What advice do you have for other technology directors out there?

Owen: Look at all of the services you provide to your organization and come up with a value that they bring, such as what it would cost if you outsourced the work. Show how the things you do and the people you support provide real benefit to the overall organization. We talk about technology as an investment in our future.

Toll: I think it is very important for CIOs to have a good team of teachers, administrators, students, and parents to help devise an overall vision, mission, and goals for the district’s technology department. After that, it’s up to the CIO to implement that plan effectively, be financially accountable, and remember to include necessary professional development and public relations so that no initiative is ever seen simply as the purchase of a lot of physical devices.

Wynn: It’s very important to use some of the CoSN and other third-party tools to help validate and justify your position. You don’t want it to look like it’s just coming from you. You need to be able to say, “This is why we need to do it.” Don’t just rely on your paper and pencil. When you bring in that other voice, it adds legitimacy to your request.

Honoré: I agree 100 percent. The CoSN tools will validate what you’re looking to do. I also look at other districts, especially within my state, that have done what I’m looking to do. That goes a long way with the leadership and the board because it makes them more comfortable about how what we’re about to do for X number of dollars works. Any time you can tie it to strategic initiatives within the district, it goes a long way. If you can tie it to instruction or a curriculum initiative, that is also a huge plus in getting approval.

Schwartz: I’d echo all of that and add one more comment: The tools add legitimacy as well as helping you think about hidden costs, soft costs, and other things you didn’t think of. That is becoming crucial.


Dan Honoré, Director of Information Services (until July 2012), Kenosha (WI) USD No. 1. Honoré, who spent nearly 13 years at Kenosha, has worked in technology for more than 20 years. Kenosha USD is the third-largest district in Wisconsin, with 42 schools and 125,672 students.

Alice Owen, Executive Director of Technology, Irving (TX) ISD. Owen has been in the district for nine of her 37 years in education. She oversees one of the longest running 1:1 laptop programs in the nation, providing laptops to more than 12,000 teachers and students. She was recently presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award for Technology in Education from the Texas Computer Education Association. Irving I SD serves more than 34,000 students and has 39 schools.

Kevin Schwartz, Director of Technology Services at Eanes (TX) I SD. Schwartz has been technology director at Eanes ISD for five-and-a-half years. Before that, he was network coordinator for the district. He is responsible for all phases of network and server infrastructure, IT security, administrative systems, and integrated systems. Eanes ISD serves 7,700 students at nine schools.

Nancy Toll, technology coordinator, Hudson (WI) School District.

Steve Young, Chief Technology Officer at Judson (TX) ISD. Young has been at Judson ISD since 2006, and he oversees network operations, server hardware, desktop hardware, application support, programming, help desk support, telecommunications, and radio. Young founded the San Antonio Area Technology Directors group, which has met quarterly since its inception in 2007. Judson ISD has 29 schools and serves more than 22,000 students.

Lewis Wynn, Director of Technology at Rockdale (TX) Independent School District (ISD). Wynn has worked in the computer and telecommunication field for more than 20 years. He has held senior positions at Texas A &M University, the Institute for Scientific Computation, the Academy for Advanced Telecommunications and Learning Technology, and AC S Digital Networks. Rockdale ISD is a rural district with four schools serving 1,600 students.