The Innovative CIO

Mark Gabehart, the new chief technology officer for Abilene Independent School District in Texas, actively embraces change in his work. School CIO spoke with Gabehart about innovating in K–12 districts.

Q. Before you took your current role at Abilene ISD, you were the executive director for technology initiatives and support at La Porte ISD in La Porte, Texas? What was your role?
A. I was responsible for overall technology initiatives implemented in the district. This involves technology integration—ensuring that technology applications and essential knowledge and skills are integrated with core content areas. Applications we used include PLATO Learning for credit recovery, Scholastic Read 180 for struggling readers, and Renaissance Learning to encourage kids to read books. It also involved managing administration to ensure that the staff job appraisals are done in a meaningful way and as seamlessly as possible. Finance system, time and attendance system, applicant system—they all need to work together.

Q. What role does technology play when it comes to innovation?
A. Many times the technology itself is the easiest part of the equation. It's changing the mindsets of people and the business practices of people using the tech [that ’s hard]. If people don't buy in to the change—the innovation—you won't get far.

Q. What are some innovations you facilitated during your tenure at La Porte?
A. One was changing out our time and attendance system. In the past we used Kronos. We decided to stay with Kronos, but to get the best value out of the system we had to research and tweak our business practices. For example, the Kronos system did not interface with our Finance System, which meant every time we did payroll we had to manually do it. By ensuring the systems link together, we will reduce our staff time to do payroll and the district saves money. In terms of business practices, we looked at all of our procedures with the Kronos people. They have a workbook that asked us a series of questions on how we handle this or that. Through the workbook, we defined and clarified how we wanted the system to work. For example, we had to ask questions like, "How much money should we be paying substitutes? What rate of pay and what is a fair amount of pay? Do we want professional staff to clock in or not?"

Another innovative solution we tested involved total cost of ownership. We were looking for a cost-effective solution involving TCO of a computer. We looked for a turnkey solution that would address aging desktops, servers, and applications that run on them without increasing staff maintenance time. We found and piloted ClassLink’s thin client solution in computer lab settings at three campuses. When we looked at total cost, although the concept proved to work, the costs in our situation were too great compared to the benefits.

Q. How do you assess the success of an innovation?
A. At one level, you assess it by asking, “Did you fulfill all the goals you set out?” Did you buy the product, did you get it installed, and is it working? Have you followed the budget process to make sure it took place? The other piece is monitoring people through interviews and surveys. And then you can take that further by asking if this has changed the way [they] do [their] work—is it better than before? Are you able to do other things now that you weren't able to do before? From a student perspective, we look at TAKS scores, the number of days that they are no longer absent or tardy, and if technology has made a difference in those areas.

Q. What advice do you have for other districts seeking to innovate?
A. Do lots of planning with all the stakeholders up front. Think through what your needs are, clearly identify them, and seek out alternative solutions. Choose one solution and do the best job you can in getting the resources to make sure it can be implemented well. We often spend a lot of money, effort, and time on buying the product itself. We also have to spend a lot of time on the training, implementation, and support for end users.

Q. Are there any predictors of the success of an innovation?
A. Yes. One predictor is the level of buy-in that you have of the stakeholders to whom this change is going to occur. If you don't have the buy-in from them, when things start to go wrong—either from a technology or business process standpoint—they'll start pointing fingers and saying that no one asked them.

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 or read his writing at the Blog at