Whatever You Say, Boss

During her tenure as director of technology for the Las Cruces Public Schools in Las Cruces, New Mexico, Patricia Miller says her superintendent always wanted something extra. He expected her to hold a long-range vision for the district, including staying abreast of new technologies and deploying pilot projects to see if these new technologies had promise. In meetings, the superintendent told Miller he expected a reliable network, easy access to e-mail, a training plan—and he wanted the IT department to win grants.

All together, it was a tall order. But because the superintendent communicated his expectations clearly and positively, Miller flourished. Each year she was able to generate funded grants ranging from $1 to $9.8 million—funds that provided the district with technology infrastructure and a wide variety of instructional initiatives utilizing new technologies to improve student achievement across the board.

“While technology was necessary for the business and daily operations of the district, it was absolutely critical in the instructional mission,” she says. “The business side [was] simply measured by performance by whether the network was up and more money was coming in to the district.”

Miller, now superintendent of Fort Sumner Municipal Schools in Fort Sumner, N.M., certainly had her back up against the wall during her time in Las Cruces. But she isn’t the only CIO or technology leader these days who has found that demanding superintendents can inspire greatness.

Balancing the Scorecard

In Fulton County Schools in Atlanta, measuring performance is much more formulaic. There, CIO Katie Lovett says her superintendent and school board measure the success of IT by applying every purchasing decision to the Balanced Scorecard, a management and measurement system that enables organizations to clarify a vision and turn it into action.

Under this system, Lovett looks at a variety of specific benchmarks and measures in IT, always keeping in mind the bottom line: Her department must deliver technology that enhances capabilities for the students across the board. What is the value of each technology purchase? Is it increasing students’ ability to communicate? Is it making the district more effective? Lovett says she is required to ask these kinds of questions about every project she initiates.

“As an IT department, we can’t make any decision outside of the business side and their objectives,” she says. “The superintendent expects me to understand what business needs are and make sure we are meeting them.”

Setting Goals

Other superintendents take a more hands-off approach. Take the Douglas County School District in Castle Rock, Colorado, for instance, where CIO Don Begin says his superintendent gives him the leverage of setting expectations for himself. At the beginning of every year, Begin sits down with the superintendent to outline goals in areas such as technology development, procurement, and more. Once the pair agrees on a list of goals, Begin reports back on a quarterly basis with a status report.

The duo works together to conduct multiple finance audits to make sure IT funding is going where they had slated it. Finally, at the end of the year, the superintendent conducts the district’s annual information cycle with all of Begin’s quarterly information in hand. At this time, Begin provides updates for members of the superintendent’s cabinet to make sure they understand the big picture and how IT fits in.

“If I want my department to be successful, I’ve got to be the one who’s setting expectations and making sure we meet them,” he says. “I liken my role to being the executive business analyst, because my job is to listen to what other people are saying, then step in and try to provide clarity.”

Matt Villano is contributing editor of School CIO.