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Five ways to make smart ed-tech investments


School leaders are looking for strategic ways to get the most out of their investments.
School leaders are looking for strategic ways to get the most out of their investments.


As you consider how to spend your remaining stimulus money—and whatever other funds you might have available this year—keep in mind that the money might represent the last best chance you’ll have to make a one-time investment that can have a long-term impact on your schools.

But beware of investments that can’t be sustained once the money runs dry. Say you purchase smart phones for staff members, for instance. While the idea of having staff constantly connected might seem like a good investment, what happens when monthly service charges won’t be covered by a funding surplus? Will you be able to afford these on your own in a time of tight budgets?

Many school leaders are realizing that long-term investments, such as in education technology infrastructure or “green” initiatives, will garner the most return on investment—both fiscally and in terms of student achievement.

In talking with school leaders around the country, we’ve come up with five tips for how to spend the remaining stimulus money while getting the best bang for your buck.

1. Upgrade and overhaul.

Now is the time to give your school or district a technology facelift, experts say.

“Think systemically,” says the State Educational Technology Directors Association. “Look toward the future in terms of planning the infrastructure you’ll need for the next 10 years.”

Debra Zamparelli, director of curriculum and instruction for Middlesex Borough schools in New Jersey, said her district used American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds to upgrade its technology infrastructure: Each of the schools became a wireless environment, which cost approximately $182,000.

“Also, we purchased six to eight netbooks for each of our elementary reading classrooms and provided them with a web-based software program that creates an individualized education plan for each child and tailors instruction and pace to the needs of the individual,” she said. “This program is available to the children at school and also at home. We have also used the funds to continue to equip each of our classrooms with our Technology Package, which consists of an LCD [projector], an ENO interactive whiteboard [from PolyVision], and an ELMO document camera.”

Zamparelli bought 75 netbooks for approximately $22,500. The software cost appromimately $20,000, and the projectors and whiteboards cost about $80,000.

“We wanted to purchase items that support our district goals,” she explained. “We wanted to focus on student engagement and achievement, which we believe is accomplished through the use of technology. We also wanted to focus on individual needs and different learning styles. The software package also provides us with a connection to home. It [was] important for us to use this money to purchase things we feel will benefit our educational system and that we would probably not be able to afford with local funds.”

For schools that are already equipped with wireless access and classroom technologies, the stimulus marks an opportunity to purchase their own fiber connections, said Walter L. Fox, executive director of information technology at Richland County School District One in South Carolina.

“Today, we need much more bandwidth than we can afford to purchase through leasing,” said Fox. “Many school districts have purchased their own fiber, and this has eliminated long-term lease costs. The district would then only have to pay for a maintenance contract for the fiber or simply pay for repairs.”

2. Get smarter in using data.

Data management systems can provide school leaders with critical information that leads to better overall performance. They can also “drive continuous improvement efforts focused on improving achievement in Title I schools,” says the U.S. Department of Education.

New Jersey’s Ridgewood Village Public School District decided to use its ARRA funds to implement Skyward’s Student Management Suite.

“One of the provisions in the bill was designed to help schools improve their assessment and analysis of student performance, and that was exactly what we needed,” said Superintendent Daniel Fishbein.

Ridgewood was able to fund 100 percent of the project using stimulus money, Fishbein said, because the project met two key criteria: It was a single, integrated project, and the primary focus of the system is to enable schools to improve their assessment and analysis of student performance.

“If we did not have that stimulus money, with the types of cuts that we sustained, there’s no way we would have been able to fund this critical project,” he said.

Ridgewood has been working with Skyward over the past year to implement the system, which it plans to fully deploy this fall. “We were already able to leverage part of the system to manage course requests this spring, and by this summer parents will have full access to the family portal,” said Fishbein. “New Jersey school districts just lost all state aid for the upcoming school year. So our need to drive efficiency and productivity with as few resources as possible will be more critical than ever.”

3. Improve the home-school connection.

According to Paul Sanfrancesco, director of technology for Garnet Valley School District in Pennsylvania, the wisest investment his district has made with ARRA funds has been implementing a community-based web portal, developed by Schoolwires—a company that specializes in online content management, Web 2.0 functionality, and other web-based applications in a single, unified platform.

“It is rare that you find technology that has an impact on every aspect of the district community,” Sanfrancesco said. “For students, stakeholders, community members, and staff, this portal has changed the culture of the district. Students now engage with blogs, podcasts, and digital drop boxes. Students have also created web pages, and parents now have a portal for communication and eMail alerts. Teachers have open online office hours, interactive web sites, and blog pages.”

Sanfrancesco said the system is saving thousands of dollars for the district by allowing it to go paperless and providing a quicker, and cheaper, way to communicate with the community.

Fishbein also believes that web portals play a crucial role in fostering good community relations and make a wise long-term investment of ARRA funds.

“Our parents would hear from parents in neighboring districts about how they are able to communicate directly with the schools through a web-based portal and quickly and easily access information about their children online. Parents in our district grew curious and a bit concerned, wondering why we didn’t offer them the same services,” he said.

Skyward has provided Fishbein’s district with a parent web portal as part of its management suite.

4. Go green.

From providing cost savings over the long term to helping the environment, going green is another wise use of ARRA funds.

One example is the University of Minnesota, which decided to make a one-time energy investment to make its 320 campus buildings (serving more than 66,000 students and employing more than 18,500 staff and faculty) more energy efficient.

After just 15 months, the project already had already met the university’s goal of reducing energy consumption by 5 percent over the initial 18-month period—resulting in annual energy savings of more than $2.4 million.

Though the university did not use ARRA funds, instead using a performance contract to begin the project earlier, campus leaders say schools could make the same type of investment with stimulus money.

“We strive to be world-class from an energy management standpoint, and the integration we’ve done has helped us get there,” said Mark Peterson, senior controls engineer for the university.

The school’s energy management group has worked with Johnson Controls to leverage the reporting capabilities of Johnson’s Metasys building management system and use it to maximize energy and operational efficiency.

For example, programs are run to calculate the amount of hours fans have to run for a particular week, which are then compared with the amount they were scheduled to run.

“This helps us see if fans are not running as programmed or if schedules are being overridden, which would be difficult to do otherwise with such a large university,” said Peterson. “We use the Metasys system to harvest the data, which [are] then stored and published on the web for people to see as a dashboard metric.”

South Carolina’s Charleston Public Schools also used its ARRA funds for a green cause.

According to Superintendent Jeff Stubblefield, the district added 20,000 square feet to a middle school using partnership and stimulus funds. The new addition also features 116 sky lights and other green implementations, which will greatly reduce lighting and other energy costs.

For Stubblefield, using money now to save money later is the best investment you can make.

5. Be creative.

Though making wise, long-term investment decisions might seem to preclude hiring more staff, because you’d have to keep paying them when the money runs out, some districts have employed creative means to create or save jobs.

For instance, Illinois’ School District 300 used ARRA funds to launch a new program that created job for the district, and is also sustainable, by using the stimulus money as a bridge to other funding sources.

According to Cheryl Crates, chief financial officer for the district, Illinois’ basic funding formula allows for morning and afternoon kindergarten. The district wanted to start a full-day kindergarten program but would have had to pay the first-year costs itself, before the state funding kicked in.

“ARRA funds gave us a perfect opportunity to start an extended-day program for our Title I schools and to expect some long-term funding … in year two, three, and beyond, because the state formula will then fund [an] increased student population one year later. But the startup costs are always the problem,” Crates explained.

The district added classrooms to four of its Title I schools, and each of those provided two to three sections of extended-day services, explained Luz Baez, the district’s grant director.

“We employed nine half-time teachers, or about four to four-and-a-half teachers more than we would have ordinarily funded,” said Crates, “so it gave us an opportunity to [create] jobs.”

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