Magazine article Technology & Learning

Tech Support: More for Less: Today's School Districts Face a Daunting Challenge: Providing and Maintaining the Most Advanced Technology for the Least Amount of Money. Here's How Three Districts Are Getting the Biggest Bang for Their Technology Buck. (What Works)

Magazine article Technology & Learning

Tech Support: More for Less: Today's School Districts Face a Daunting Challenge: Providing and Maintaining the Most Advanced Technology for the Least Amount of Money. Here's How Three Districts Are Getting the Biggest Bang for Their Technology Buck. (What Works)

Article excerpt

Reallocating Funds to Build a Support Infrastructure

When John Porter took the helm as chief information officer for the Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, he was surprised to find that the relatively wealthy suburban district--the nation's 19th largest--was lagging behind the rest of the country in technology integration.

For Porter, the county's Global Access Technology program, a plan for putting computers in all the county's schools over 11 years, fell short on several fronts: 11 years was too long; there was no provision to refresh outdated machines; and, under the allotted budget, some of the county's schools would still lack computers, even after 11 years.

What's more, only schools that had received machines through the Global Access program qualified for computer support from the county's limited technicians. This meant schools that had struggled to find computers on their own had to fend for themselves when it came to installation, upkeep, and troubleshooting. Not surprisingly, the schools that had the best support resources were those receiving funds from parent-teacher organizations and foundations in the county's wealthier areas. "Affluent parents were filling the gap by starting foundations and buying labs to compensate," says Porter.

County officials decided something had to be done to level the technological playing field across the county's 190 schools. Their answer: reallocating funds in the county's hefty school budget. Montgomery County is exceptional in that 90 percent of the school budget comes from the county's large taxpayer base. This year the district's operating budget is more than $1 billion. Of that, the technology office gets close to $9 million for its capital fund and more than $23 million for its operating budget.

With the new reallocation, considerably more of the capital budget will go toward buying, upgrading, and replacing computer hardware, and notably more of the operating budget will go toward technology support. The county was able to realign the budget by spending what they already had more effectively. For example, pressure was put on computer companies to offer more competitive pricing, increase the warranties on the machines, and be responsible for their installation and maintenance. This allowed existing support staff to focus their attention on more significant tech problems; it also freed up funds to put toward hiring and retaining tech support staff, known in the county as user support specialists.

The new initiative, called the Technology Modernization Program, already appears to be paying off. A county user support specialist now serves each high school, as well as the elementary and middle schools that feed it. In some cases, the county has even hired user support specialists to serve an individual school full-time. One school benefiting from such an arrangement is Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda. There, support specialist Greg Thomas helped purchase 500 relatively new PCs and connected them to the school district's T-1 line. Because he is on-site, he can integrate all new software on the school's network and troubleshoot hardware problems.

Not all schools are as lucky as Walt Whitman. For example, North Chevy Chase Elementary School--a technology magnet school--still uses outdated Power Macintosh 5200 computers. "It's embarrassing to say we're a magnet school when we have such old computers," says principal Denise Greene. Still, she is hopeful that, through the Technology Modernization Program, her school will have new PCs in a year or two.

Outsourcing the Help Desk and Tapping Teachers

For districts that are smaller and more rural than Montgomery County, employing a full staff of technical support specialists across schools is not typically an option. Certainly, it is impossible in Monongalia County, W. Va., which serves over 10,300 students in its 25 schools, and must stretch a technology budget of just over $1 million across the district. …

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