Maximizing our Financial Resources

As we seek to expand the technology tools and infrastructure available to our students and teachers, we must also cope with one of the key realities of this investment: technology is expensive.  On one hand, of course, the cost of technology has consistently declined over the past three decades; the word processors of the 1980s frequently cost more than $2,000, for instance.  The drop in technology prices has been closely tied to the increasing ubiquity of and reliance on technology within our schools and society at large; in other words, while prices may be dropping, the amount of technology that must be purchased continues to increase.  

Some of these incentives to increase technology access are evident in our classrooms.  We now have the ability to invest in technologies that can help to close the digital divide and mitigate the effects of this inequity, reduce the negative learning impacts of hearing and vision disabilities, and facilitate promising new pedagogical approaches such as blended learning and personalized learning,  among myriad other benefits.  

Our Financial Reality

You will rarely, if ever, hear me complain about our level of technology funding.  I’ve worked in schools for many years, and understand that with finite financial resources, technology is often not the top priority in terms of use of our very limited funds, nor should it be.  

As a district, we spend about $270 per student on all technology expenditures, including computers, equipment, infrastructure, software, services, and salaries/benefits for technology employees.  This amount compares to a statewide average of just under $350, and an average among the other urban districts in the state of about $320 per student.  The gap between ICCSD’s technology expenditures and those of other districts is significant.  The difference between our expenses and the urban average amounts to about $700,000 per year based upon our enrollment; this annual amount could fully fund our secondary 1:1 and elementary student device programs with about $100,000 to spare.  

Rather than dwell on deficiencies, however, our approach has been to aggressively seek cost savings wherever we can, with a goal of avoiding any negative impact on our technology offerings for students, teachers, and our community.  This year alone, we’ve leveraged the federal E-Rate program, the benefits of competitive bidding and volume purchasing, selection of equivalent but less expensive devices, and difficult-to-use funds provided through a lawsuit settlement between Microsoft and the State of Iowa.  

E-Rate

One of our biggest cost savings this year has been aggressive use of E-Rate, a federal program that provides subsidies to help fund communications technologies in schools and libraries.  While the district has used E-Rate to subsidize internet service for a long time, we are now implementing the (somewhat onerous) processes required to receive subsidies for other technology investments, such as network equipment, fiber optic infrastructure, and network security technology.  The table below outlines the savings we’ll realize this year, for projects that would have been necessary regardless: 

 Project E-Rate Reimbursement
 ICN Internet + Firewall  $75,319
Network Equipment @ Liberty & New Hoover  $138,076
 Wireless APs @ Liberty, New Hoover, Tate, City, West  $135,700
 Network Switch Upgrade for 40Gb backbone (district-wide)  $126,000
 Total  $475,095

Many thanks to our technology operations manager, Justin Miller, our network administrators, and our finance office for facilitating the processes and paperwork required to realize these E-Rate savings.  

Competitive Bidding

While districts across the state follow competitive bidding laws, we’ve moved within our department to go beyond the basic legal requirements and truly embrace the potential benefits of open, thorough competitive bidding processes.  A full bid process is a requirement for E-Rate projects, such as those listed above, and we’ve also utilized a full request for proposal (RFP) process for our classroom technology, server infrastructure, application virtualization, and device purchase projects this year.  

While there is a lot of groundwork that goes into preparation of an RFP that will yield cost savings for the district while ensuring that the district’s needs are met, our experiences thus far this year indicate that the process is well worth it.  

  • ICCSD’s server and application virtualization bid process resulted in a winning bid that saved over $220,000 compared to the initial cost estimates provided by one of our vendors, and came in at almost $500,000 below the highest equivalent bid.  
  • Our bid process for 1:1 and elementary Chromebooks resulted in a total per-unit cost of about $191, including the devices and management licenses.  This represents a savings of about $52 per device compared to our previous Chromebook purchase contract, or about $239,000 this year, based upon the volume of our Chromebook purchase.  
  • Our previous classroom technology suite cost about $5,600 per room, and we estimated that our new suite – discussed in more detail below – would cost about $3,900 per room, a $1,700 savings.  After a bid process that included a split award, our new standard suite will cost about $3,050 per room, a savings of $850 compared to our estimate and $2,550 compared to our old standard.  We believe that our rigorous bid process saved about $125,000 this year as we outfit and upgrade 147 classrooms.
    • NOTE: During a March board meeting, I responded to a question from one of our directors with a top-of-my-head estimate of a $1,500 savings per room, which is almost $1,000 less than our actual savings.  When I was doing the math in my head, I forgot to include the hub computer, a component we’ve removed from the suite. 

While this isn’t a comprehensive list of our bid processes, I feel confidant in saying that our work to facilitate competitive bidding is saving the district a minimum of about $685,000 this year alone.  

Device Selection

Using our classroom technology suite as an example, we’ve been able to realize substantial cost savings by choosing devices that offer the same (or greater) functionality when compared to our current offerings, at a lower cost.  

The district’s Every Classroom campaign in 2012 made huge strides by equipping all of our classrooms with a standard suite that included a SMART Board, projector, and document camera.  Now that we are reaching the point where those devices need to be replaced, and new classrooms need to be outfitted with tech, we’ve re-evaluated our classroom standard suite. 

We still need the interactive whiteboard capabilities provided by the SMART Boards – these functions are used heavily in all of our schools – but can provide the same functionality with much-less-expensive interactive projectors, which have the interactive functionality sensors built into the projector itself.  These interactive projectors save us about $1,800 per classroom when compared to the SMART Board + non-interactive projector combination that was our previous standard.  Further, they allow for interactive projection on a regular whiteboard, which gives teachers one more surface to use non-digital markers and equipment, and use the same SMART Notebook software as the SMART Boards.  

Not only has this type of change saved money, but it’s allowed us to expand our offerings.  In addition to an interactive whiteboard, projector, and document camera, our classroom standard suite now includes integrated audio with voice amplification and wireless video.  These are components that enable more accessibility and flexibility in our learning spaces, all while reducing the overall cost of our classroom suite by about $1,450 per classroom – not including bidding process savings itemized above – or about $213,000 in savings for the 147 classrooms we’ll outfit this year.  

Microsoft Settlement Funds

This item is a bit different from the others on the list in that it’s a one-time savings, but still a welcome one.  A number of years ago, Microsoft settled a lawsuit filed by the State of Iowa, and that settlement provided funds for schools to purchase technology.  That funding is heavily restricted, however, in three ways: 

  • Only 1/3 of the funding can be used on hardware, and the remaining 2/3 must be spent on software.  This is exactly the opposite ratio that most technology professionals would recommend.
  • The funds cannot be spent on just any technology, and instead can only be spent on items that appear on an approved list maintained by the state.  This list is neither comprehensive nor frequently-updated, and appeals related to items not on the list are rarely granted.  
  • Expenses have to be tied to an individual school.  In a district with 26 schools and 14,000 students, we leverage economies of scale by purchasing district licenses and centralized software, so breaking these costs down is a challenge.  

Because of these restrictions, most districts had difficulty spending the software portion of the funding, and after a first round that concluded a few years ago, the state found that it had a substantial amount of unspent money.  As such, the state took the remaining money and launched a second wave of funding, but did not change the restrictions.  This year, we resolved to figure out a way to spend all of our funding.  Denise Rehmke (our library coordinator), Diane Schumacher (our director of curriculum and instruction) and I worked to identify software – sometimes unlikely software – that we were already using or planning to use that appeared on the eligible software list, and filed all of the paperwork necessary to receive reimbursements for those eligible expenses.  After going through this process, our reimbursement amount will be just under $300,000.  

The Impact

The list that I’ve articulated here isn’t complete, and we’ll continue to work constantly to save money and maximize our technology resources.  So far this year, the approaches outlined above have saved the district about $1.673 million, which amounts to about 43% of our total budgeted expenditures.  

I don’t want to paint too rosy a picture, however; it is important to note that we haven’t reduced expenses by this amount, but rather that these savings are enabling us to expand our classroom tech suite, launch an affordable 1:1 program, improve elementary device ratios to 2:1, aggressively standardize our devices to increase efficiency, expand our technology staffing to more appropriate levels, and dramatically improve our infrastructure.  

I will continue to advocate for our technology program, including seeking funding that I think is necessary and appropriate.  The more we can save, though, the more resources we free up to offer better, more innovative tech, while reducing our impact on the other priorities facing our students, staff, and community.  

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