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School IT staff must do more with less

“You have to use tech to manage the tech,” Sexsmith explained.

Mobile devices, automated help desks, personalized learning resources, software virtualization, and cloud-based services are becoming the norm for K-12 schools around the country. But with shrinking budgets and staff reductions, school IT departments say it’s getting harder to juggle so many moving parts.

“The problem of three years ago—how to do more with less—is still here today, it’s just becoming even more of a problem for schools and IT officials,” said David Castro, director of public and private-sector marketing for Kaseya, a company that provides IT systems management software for some 500 schools and districts in the U.S.

Kaseya conducted an informal survey of nearly 200 IT directors from public and private schools around the country to better understand the nuances of the problem. According to the survey, school IT professionals said there are three main goals they need to achieve in their department:

  1. Provide a higher-quality learning experience;
  2. Do more with less; and
  3. Cut costs.

Nearly 70 percent of respondents said their biggest IT challenge right now is “dealing with budget cuts,” along with “keeping all equipment online and operating,” which came in second.

The survey provides a snapshot of what school IT leaders are being asked to take on and how they’d like to accomplish their goals.

Two-thirds of respondents said they currently use automation—managing routine day-to-day maintenance tasks without human intervention—for some IT functions, such as software patches, updates, and computer performance monitoring.

However, a whopping 76 percent of respondents said they are either considering automation for the first time this year or are exploring even more ways to automate various tasks.

“Automation isn’t going anywhere,” said Castro, “because it’s one of the only effective ways to do more with less.”

Staying ahead of the game

Knowing the challenges ahead, one county decided it was time to take some of the pressure off its limited IT staff.

California’s Monterey County Office of Education spans more than 3,700 square miles and is larger than the state of Delaware. This rural county, about two hours south of San Francisco, has 150 schools, 24 school districts, and more than 70,000 students—66 percent of whom receive free or reduced-price lunches, and many of whom are ESL students.

The county office directly supports roughly 900 devices with only four IT employees.

Scott Sexsmith, executive director of technology and information services for the Monterey County Office of Education, has more than 30 years of experience in the industry. He says budget cuts have been tough.

“Our office helps with curriculum but also with alternative ed, migrant ed, special ed, and Head Start offices—all of which are spread throughout the county in different districts and are therefore located behind district firewalls. It can be a two-hour drive between schools sometimes,” Sexsmith explained. “It takes a lot of time to send someone to one of these locations, and a lot of money [for] gas.”

Sexsmith said the county needed to manage diverse, non-standardized equipment behind firewalls in spread-out locations.

“It’s hard to know where computers are because many classes, like migrant and special-education classes, move locations. We needed to report where they are, their lifecycles—especially for federal purposes and management—and we needed to manage computer anti-virus [and] anti-malware,” he said.

According to Sexsmith, the county sent out an RFP and received multiple responses from many vendors, but Kaseya stood out as a company that was interested in the county’s unique needs, instead of prescribing a rigid set of products.

“The company really came into the education market in the last year or so, but it’s a large global company. We were impressed when the president of the company came down about a year ago to talk to us. They really cared about the county’s needs and asked thorough questions; you could really tell they cared and were different from other companies,” said Sexsmith.

After Kaseya won the RFP, the county paid with federal stimulus funding it had set aside for improving IT efficiencies.

“Kaseya is cost-friendly and competitive,” said Sexsmith. “They’re also an evolving company, so they can offer good prices. And they’re in the process of trying to eliminate third-party software products that are currently part of the Kaseya product so the company can provide better pricing—this is cost-appealing to the county.”

According to Castro, what makes Kaseya different from other vendors is the one-stop shopping aspect of its product suite.

“It’s an integrated suite, so it can be one set of tasks or a suite of tasks. There’s an easy entry point and a single code base. We’re not a large vendor that needs lots of integration time. Delivery is acquired on-premise or through the cloud, and the number of devices that can be supported is limitless. And there are many types of licenses available,” he said.

Sexsmith said that only four people in the county are managing all networks, but they were able to implement Kaseya, VMware, and Kaspersky, all at an enterprise level, within a six-week period.

“It was hectic, but Kaseya responded quickly to any fixes the county needed,” said Sexsmith.

The county has been using Kaseya for about eight to nine months and already is seeing a return-on-investment (ROI).

“Right away there was lots of inventory information instantly, which is good for insurance and federal reporting,” said Sexsmith. “Kaseya also provides savings in terms of power management—roughly $30,000 per year. PG&E rebates are also possible.” He added that the county is saving money by automating some IT tasks without having to send out staff members to local school sites, thereby saving on gas and improving efficiency.

The county is already planning for Phase Two of its IT update, says Sexsmith. This will include:

• Managing desktops, patches, software updates, timed releases, and preserving functionality.

• Using Kaseya to help manage software licensing and compliance with all licenses.

• Using Kaseya to report how much software is installed (leading to cost savings).

• Updating the county’s service desk to be compliant and integrated with an agent installed on each machine. The county will be able to send out a customer survey, asking if requests were met in a timely manner, and so on.

“This is part of being proactive, rather than reactive, which saves staff time and money,” said Sexsmith.

Sexsmith said his office knows that automation is a necessity.

“You have to use tech to manage the tech,” he explained. “Requests for services are increasing, and you can’t do this by hiring more staff. You have to do things smarter, not harder—especially with all the budget cuts.”

He added: “We have to keep the network running to the end users, which are students and teachers, so they can have access to resources. Equality of access to these resources for all is incredibly important.”

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