Q&A: Patricia Renzulli

Patricia Renzulli, executive vice president of technology and CIO for the School District of Philadelphia, oversees technology for 273 schools and nearly 200,000 students. Five years ago, however, she was overseeing a very different kind of user base, as CIO for the oil company Sunoco. School CIO contributing editor Matt Villano recently caught up with her to ask her how she tackles IT governance in her district.

Q: How is your department structured?

A: I have three major areas in [the] information technology [department]. The first layer is our network infrastructure, which includes telephone communications, managing videoconferencing, and managing email; the basic set of stuff that you need to provide a technology infrastructure. The second layer is information systems. This is the area where you have information that’s captured in our computer systems for people throughout the district. The third layer is our IT group. It’s the group that’s responsible for delivering technology to the classrooms. If we’re all about education and influencing children’s lives in the classroom, everything else has to be done in support of that.

Q: Within this structure, how does technology happen in your district?

A: We have a strategic plan. The vision is to support what we call our “Declaration of Education.” This document includes our educational goals that we want to accomplish as a district until the year 2008. All of the technology proposals that we put into the plan have to be in support of that declaration. We work with all areas of the school district and routinely work in collaborative fashion to ensure that this plan reflects what their needs are. We divide projects into four major areas: 21st-century learning, data-driven decision making, efficient and effective business operations, and our infrastructure.

Q: Who oversees this plan?

A: Every project fits into one of these four categories. Next, we then work through the IT steering committee, which is comprised of the most senior people in the district—the chief academic officer, chief financial officer, chief operating officer, and chief executive officer, who is our equivalent of what other districts call a superintendent. Our steering committee provides a check for our customers (our teachers) on how we’re behaving and what our work priorities are. Everything we do gets closely scrutinized by the IT steering committee to ensure that it is indeed the right priority.

Q: What’s your role, the role of the CIO?

A: I’m there to assure that we are allocating our scarce technology resources appropriately, both in the day-to-day as well as in the long term. My responsibilities are to manage our operations and investments. It’s easy to fall into the trap as a technologist of falling in love with a technology or a new system, but as CIO, I always have to be looking to make sure the things I’m proposing to do are meeting the business needs of my constituents.

Q: What’s the biggest challenge with your organizational approach?

A: The biggest challenge I face is funding. Because I’m dealing with board members and other folks who aren’t familiar with cost or benefits of technology, it takes a lot of conversation to educate them about how to proceed. There’s a balance about educating them on the one hand, but not necessarily trying to convince them that the projects I’m proposing need to be their first priority. I have to be persuasive but not overbearing. Sometimes, even with the help of a steering committee, that can be tough.