Q&A: Scott Wright

As executive director of technology operations for Katy Independent School District in Texas, Scott Wright oversees a 50,000-student district that is growing eight to ten percent a year. In order to keep up with this breakneck speed of change, Wright has modeled his IT organization after those in the business world.

Q: How have you organized the district’s IT department?

A: About three years ago, I came in and put together a plan that streamlined IT. I wanted to build an IT organization just like you’d see in corporate environment, an organization that works efficiently and thinks about the way it tackles technology problems. When I first came in here, there wasn’t a separation between the operational, day-to-day support and long-term planning for technology. You had people who were doing day-to-day support out there meeting with users trying to talk about what they’d like down the road. What you ended up seeing is that the end users taking over the role of scoping and prioritizing what should be implemented in the district. My idea was to separate the technology that directly supports education and the management of technology itself. I saw these as two distinct things, largely because technology management has to be done by professional technologists. Today, we have three divisions of IT: an operations department, an enterprise application development department, and a department with an eye on the future.

Q: How has this structure enabled you to react to the district’s growth?

A: As the district continues to grow, the IT organization has remained relatively the same size. To accomplish this, we’ve moved to try and automate as much as we can. We’ve launched what we call the Katy Management Automated Curriculum, or KMAC, a Web-based curriculum system that enables teachers in all 45 of our schools to continue the classroom online. Today, almost all of our 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. The system also offers an administrative component, which principals use to log on at any time and see what’s going on in their school. Because everyone is on the same system, support is easy. If we install a new piece of software tonight, every computer in the district will have it in the morning. The process enables us to support 18,000 PCs with a staff of ten people.

Q: Sounds like automation has worked wonders. Is that your only secret?

A: Not at all. At Katy, we’ve achieved success with a blend of automation and centralization. We’ve centralized all of our infrastructure operations under a proprietary system. We centralized our data and applications. We implemented a district-wide gradebook. We’ve centralized our grade reporting process. We centralized the student management. In the past, people were working with five, six, seven different systems. As a result, nobody was using technology the way it was meant to be used. Now, after centralization, we average 200 new reports a year. We’ve created a new system called KatyNet, where our users can go to collect data and run reports off of it. The system is like SAP (an enterprise resource planning system) in the corporate world.

Q: Overall, which of these efforts has been most critical to the success of Katy’s approach?

A: Automation and centralization have been important, but when you look at the size of our network and you look at the salaries the district was willing to pay for their senior people, there was a mismatch. There’s no way we were going to continue to get good technologists in here at the salaries we were willing to pay. One of the things we did was restructure pay scales such that I could get non-contracted positions and pay salaries that were competitive to what people were paying in industry. If you have a complex environment but you’re only willing to pay $30,000 a year for a senior engineer, that’s never going to fly. We redeveloped job descriptions. We increased our salaries. As a result, to date, we have attracted most of our new employees from industry. It’s made a huge difference.

Matt Villano is contributing editor for School CIO.