Q&A: Ed Zaiontz

Last year, chief technology officers in Texas formed the first state-wide CTO Council (www.texasctos.org), which today has 42 members and an ambitious mission to boost IT capacity and knowledge across districts. Council co-founder Ed Zaiontz, executive director of information services of Round Rock Independent School District, talked to us about how the group is faring after its first year.

Q: What was the initial impetus for forming the council?

A: The primary reason was collaboration. Here in central Texas the largest district is Austin ISD and the second largest is Round Rock ISD. We didn’t know what was going on in our neighboring districts, much less in Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, and El Paso. We saw a huge benefit in coming together to share projects. An example: Austin ISD and Round Rock ISD have the same library systems. Austin has come up with a solution to give students outside access to the system so students can search the [library] database from home. Round Rock doesn’t currently offer this but we’d like to. So now I can call on them and ask “How did you do that?” We don’t have to reinvent the wheel.

Q: What’s the council’s mission?

A: We’ve defined four goals: to increase technology leadership capacity, to be advocates for technology, to monitor emerging technology, and to collaborate and share information. These also happened to be the objectives of the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), so when we went looking for a national organization to align with, they were a logical choice [Disclosure: CoSN is association sponsor of School CIO]. We petitioned them last July to become the first state chapter of chief technology officers and last year they amended their bylaws to allow for state chapters.

Q: How do you carry out the group’s objectives?

A: We meet three times a year. Our biggest meeting was right before the Texas Computer Educators Association conference. We had forty school districts represented. In the morning CoSN updated us about the recent Enhancing Education through Technology cuts via teleconference. Then we brought in Anita Givens [senior director for instructional materials and educational technology, Texas Education Agency] to give us the state perspective. In the afternoon Tom Gwosdz, a staff attorney from the Texas Association of School Boards, spoke about e-mail retention; how long you should be keeping your e-mail is a hot topic in schools right now. Following that we had a panel of technology directors present their policies and practices related to e-mail. Vendors play a part as well. TrueNorthLogic sponsored a lunch, and Intel came in at the end of the day to get our feedback on an ultra mobile PC device they’re developing—a cross between a laptop and a handheld.

Q: How different are the roles and responsibilities of CTOs across districts?

A: My observation is the biggest differentiation is whether you have instructional responsibilities or not. For example, Jim Hirsch in Plano has instructional technology and libraries under him, whereas I oversee administrative systems, LAN and WAN, PC support, telephone and video services, and repair. I think the trend across the country is for CTOs to be responsible for all facets associated with technology, including instruction. My personal opinion is that I’d like to see it go that way. If you have dual support structures and networks [for administrative and instructional technology], you end up with competing priorities. The groups should be working together with a unified emphasis on students and learning. That’s what we’re all here for.

Q: What’s next for you?

A: We’re in the process of planning a conference for June that Jim Hirsch has offered to host in Plano ISD. We’re hoping to draw current and new council members but also people from other states who might be interested in starting their own organizations and want to see how we operate.

Amy Poftak is editorial director of School CIO.