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Administrator Magazine: Budget/Finance
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Old Buildings, New Ideas

How to retrofit your district's technology while keeping costs under control.

Look around at your district's technology and you might feel like you're in 1947. That may be an exaggeration, but then you look at the walls, the school's foundation, the ceilings—and you realize those actually are from 1947. Unfortunately, post-World War II builders weren't thinking fiber optics—the previous decade had only brought them fiberglass. But even officials with more recently built schools have the same old problem: a miniscule budget. This story will explore how schools can stay progressive, while keeping an eye on the bottom line of their total costs.

Alabama-based Cullman City Schools is a forward-thinking district, as evidenced by the 1:1 program it started five years ago. But the district vision still includes buildings that date back to the 1920s, making the installment of a robust wireless network a challenge.

"East Elementary School is a work of art on the inside but, unlike our other buildings, it doesn't have suspended ceilings," says Andy Palys, a data communication technician for the district. The old school has "an attic space without a lot of room up there for data wiring. In that situation, we took it underneath the building and went into the attic in the summertime to pull the wires in the insulation, and then mounted Cisco Access Points to the ceiling. Occasionally, we'll have to surface-mount some molding on a wall to get data in place, but you do what you have to."

There is also the challenge of rewiring more recent technology. "We changed a lot of it from fiber optic to copper," Palys says. "We had too many fiber-optic connections—it was overkill. One hallway had four or five optic connections but instead of being connected to switches it was to hubs. Every fiber needs a converter and those are just too pricey."

The update also reduces downtime. "Before the switch, we'd have fiber go down and would have to hire someone to come in to re-terminate it," Palys says. "We would be down for as much as a couple days waiting for a fix. This way, it's been at most a few hours."

From Buildings to Budgets
But let's say your building is up to speed—is your budget? Steve Nelson, chief IT strategist for the Oregon Department of Education, says you can make opportunities regardless of the amount of money you have to work with. For districts in poor areas, he recommends creating collaborative technology situations that keep computer usage in the school setting and homework that's device-friendly but doesn't require Internet access from home. "You go with a computer with a pin drive or what they can do lowest-common-denominator classroom presentations with-could be a projector and whiteboard. You will also rely on the teacher bringing in digital content aligned to standards and working with it in the classroom. One great thing is that libraries in this country have provided computer access to students that allow them to find a way to get on network to do research. But, bottom line, if you require students to do digital content, you will have to make accommodations, whether checking out a computer with a wireless card or something else. You can't allow students to not have similar advantages."

Henry Thiele, CTO of the Maine Township district in Park Ridge, Illinois, agrees that prioritization helps keep costs in control. "You don't want to just make cuts across the board," Thiele says, "but really look at what's important. We had [an online curriculum tool] that was great but less than 10 percent were actually using it. It doesn't matter what it can do—if it's not being used then it needs to go. You also look at extending the life of a classroom computer by a year or two. Unless learning will suffer, it's not any different from not replacing the furniture in your house. It may be a little ratty but it's still a couch you can use."

If your district's families have better access to technology, Nelson encourages the family adoption program—working with companies to try and have incentives for families to get the Internet at home. "This also limits the exposure the school has because if the school buys all devices then they end up supporting those devices," he says. "You also would have a potentially large staff increase because supporting is not an easy venture. There are different ways to work with this. The first is if the company can set up a kiosk in the school. When a student is having a problem he can plug into a kiosk and there can be a provided support contract with the device provider for troubleshooting." Thiele says online resources have to be a top priority for this budget area as well. His state went to Google Apps, saving between $85,000 and $100,000 just in equipment and licensing for student and staff e-mail.

For districts in wealthy areas, Nelson says he would still move toward a model that allows families to buy technology so no one is left behind. "Sure, you can do 1:1 for the one-time cost of the device, but then you have the reoccurring cost of the Internet activity," Nelson says. "At the state level we have cloud apps from Oregon State University, and that means no more cost for the family."

Thiele says a larger budget was an opportunity for his district to come up with a long-term plan. "It used to be whoever screamed the loudest for a particular piece of equipment got it," he says. "Or you ended up just spending all the money for that year. But what we wanted to do was cover the peaks and valleys. Technology gets old and you want to be ready for when that happens. Don't just spend all at once on the same model or you'll later just have the same problem again—bad technology."

Nelson agrees that flexibility is key. "Technology isn't something you can predict as easily as other costs, so don't expect to be exact."

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