Among the most significant responsibilities of an educational technology leader are budget planning, cost control, and the responsible stewardship of available funds. With the demand for technology in our schools increasing at a greater pace than the funding readily available to make this vision a reality, the ground is fertile for the propagation of certain myths and misconceptions.
Myth No. 1: If we can scrape together enough funding to pull some wires in our walls and buy some computers to plug them into, we’ve got it made.
Many educational institutions are only now beginning to recognize and accept the concept of total cost of ownership (TCO), which has been the guiding principal of technology budget planning in the business world for decades. Organizations such as the Consortium for School Networking have been promoting the use of TCO principles in technology budgeting for school districts, yet many schools still take the narrower view of only looking at immediate and tangible costs.
Market research firms such as the Gartner Group consistently show in their studies that the annual cost of operating a computer far exceeds its purchase cost, year after year. Yet schools tend to focus on the cost of the basic network infrastructure and initial hardware purchase rather than the significant ongoing costs for training (both formal and informal), maintenance, support, software, and upgradesnot to mention possible secondary costs of new furniture or electrical and climate-control systems that may be required with the introduction of new technology.
When planning a budget, it’s important to consider how much technology you can afford to operate and fully use. To do this, you must have a clear idea of the overall costs of owning and using each piece of equipment. It’s better to buy less technology and use it more efficiently than to buy boat loads of computers you can’t afford to support.
Myth No. 2: Bidding laws ensure that public-education entities always get the best prices and products.
Bidding requirements can be helpful in certain instances, but in many cases they may be counterproductive. For example, a loosely-written specification can result in the procurement of cheap, unreliable equipment that is more costly to operate. Loose specifications can also encourage the acquisition of different manufacturers’ equipment on every bid, precluding the savings that come with standardization and compatibility testing.
In addition, the complex paperwork and legal requirements of bidding can serve to deter competition rather than encourage it, particularly in the case of small to medium-size projects and providers. Finally, the bidding process itself has its own substantial administrative costs that add to the project’s budget.
Technology leaders should examine all procurement options and should take advantage of alternate options, such as state and government contracts, when possible. In many cases, these contracts offer highly competitive prices that meet or exceed those available in bid responses; some even allow for deeper discounts for high-volume purchases. When there is no option other than to bid, the bidding document should be as concise as possible, with clear and detailed quality standards in place but no unnecessary requirements.
Myth No. 3: There is plenty of money flowing to schools from state and federal programs, such as the eRate.
Various grants and programs exist at the state and federal level, but they rarely form a substantial part of a school district’s overall technology budget.
Many “average” school districts may find it more difficult to obtain competitive grants, as their socioeconomic status may disqualify them or put them at a strong disadvantage for certain programs. Further, many grants provide only a small portion of the funding needed for certain projects, and they often require substantial matching funds.
Much publicity has surrounded the federal eRate program, which distributes $2.25 billion in funding each year. This program was instituted as a part of the Tele- communications Act of 1996 and is funded by fees collected from telecommunications providers. These fees were supposed to be offset by increased competition and revenues gained when new markets were opened to providers. Instead, the fees have largely been passed on in the form of surcharges to all consumers of telecommunications, from individuals to businesses to schools.
Cumulatively, these additional costs to schools and constituents, along with the administrative costs for this complex program, may exceed the value of the funding received by many districts, particularly for schools in the lower reimbursement brackets and those whose reimbursement is limited to telecommunications costs. In the past few years of the program, only those very neediest of schools have received funding for their internal wiring and other expenses necessary to bring internet access into classrooms. It makes sense to participate and recover as much reimbursement as possible; however, the net effect on budgeting may be minimal.
You should pursue whatever grants you have the greatest chance of winning, but you shouldn’t count on these resources as part of your overall budget equation. When you do receive grants, make sure you’re prepared to match those funds, if necessaryand make sure you’ve budgeted adequately to sustain the project when the money runs out. Finally, don’t forget to explore community partnerships and in-kind donations as well.
Myth No. 4: Bond issues are a good funding solution for all technology needs.
Bond funding can provide a good jump-start for the quick infusion of technology. Large-scale, intensive implementations of wiring, network electronics, telecommunications, and other infrastructure may be affordable to some institutions only through long-term funding. But long-term funding makes the most sense only when investing in long-term technology solutions.
You would be unlikely to buy a new car that you expect to keep for only four to five years using a 30-year mortgage, yet schools sometimes depend too heavily on long-term bonds to acquire large quantities of computer hardware with limited life expectancy. Try to limit the use of long-term borrowed funds to long-term technology solutions, such as multipurpose cabling infrastructure. Operating funds should be budgeted for hardware, software, and other items as part of a planned obsolescence strategy.
Myth No. 5: The rules of the business world really don’t apply to education, so costs for support, equipment replacement, and bandwidth will be much lower.
This myth could not be farther from the truth. In fact, students and instructors are among the most intensive and mission-critical users of technology.
K-12 schools provide computers in multiple buildings, supporting multiple users on every computer, running multiple programs. Generally, a business specializes in one or several lines of work and provides specialized software and hardware accordingly; yet an educational environment must provide a wide array of applications.
Increasingly, technology resources form the backbone of many parts of the learning processmeaning that if the technology does not work because of insufficient technical support, software or hardware is not up to date or compatible because of poor budgeting, or other impediments exist because of poor planning, the mission-critical “business” of learning is interrupted.
A solid understanding of the business of technology will help schools devote appropriate budgetary resources to technology and not bite off more than they can chew.
Technology budgeting that is based on common myths is not planning, but rather wishful thinking. Dispelling these myths involves an open-minded approach to educational technology, with an eye toward what can be learned from the business world. Procurement of computers, a distance-learning system, or a telephone switch has fiscal implications for the entire organization that reach far beyond the initial purchase. Technology budgeting must be done holistically, with long-term planning for all costs associated with the procurement and effective use of these new learning tools.
Laurence Goldberg is the director of technology and telecommunications for the Abington School District in Pennsylvania.