Tech advice for cash-strapped schools
The emails and posts and unsolicited invitations are endless. There isn’t a day—maybe even a minute—that goes by where Gary Kerbow doesn’t get a message from a vendor trying to solicit time for an online meeting, webinar or face-to-face conference to showcase a new product and/or system for the K-12 marketplace. And while Kerbow, RTSBA, Director of Purchasing for the Hurst-Euless-Bedford Independent School District in Bedford, Texas, cannot speak for every procurement professional across the country, he admits the invites are as alluring as they are daunting.
Admittedly, Kerbow finds it challenging to carve out enough time to review every offer, simply because there isn’t enough time in the day. But because the world of technology can be such an ally, he tries to view at least one or two new items each month to familiarize himself with what is out there. To help rein in the madness, he has a folder on his computer that indexes the information when and if one of the campuses has a specific need for a service.
“I consider this my ‘continuing education’ when it comes to keeping up to date on the latest products,” Kerbow says.
This growing remote network of procurement vendors grew out of necessity during the pandemic. By building a platform to get in front of vendors—without actually getting in front of them, per se—they created a virtual time-saving product/service showcase.
And yet, as plentiful as the vendor network is, there still is that pesky issue of getting what you ordered. Today, Kerbow says that partnerships are becoming more and more challenging since historically reliable vendors are no longer in a position to guarantee delivery due to supply chain issues that are beyond their control.
“As a procurement official, it is important not to abandon these partnerships, but be open to alternate sourcing, at least until the supply chain issues are corrected,” Kerbow says. “It is possible that they will never return to what it was prior to 2020, but this may be an opportunity to cast the net even wider for previously unidentified sources and bring them into our network of vendors.”
Along with the supply chain situation, there are a number of challenges to confront. In no particular order, they include:
- Compatibility with other systems — Can your LMS speak to other software like bus routing software or the cafeteria payment system?
- End user ease of use — Can parents, teachers and administrators access information in a fashion that is straightforward and intuitive? This is especially important for parents who are busy and want to get quick access to their child’s schedule and/or grades.
- Responsive and integrated costs for districts — Many companies will want to sell a system to a district, but will then add additional charges for upgrades that the average user would find a common sense update.
- Tangling with the world of cybersecurity — This remains one of the biggest threats and highest priorities when it comes to student management systems.
- Wrangling student data — A close second to cybersecurity is the access to student data in order to create class schedules, enable communication between teacher and students, and securely transfer student records to institutions of higher learning on behalf of students.
“Your procurement process must not only have a vision of current trends, but also an eye to the future,” says Wayne Ackles, retired Executive Principal at West Genesee Central School District outside of Syracuse, New York. “That has to come from leadership beyond the department guiding the district’s spending goals based upon input from practitioners in the classroom. It also has to follow a design of rolling or regular replacement schedule—whether it’s buses or laptops. That group has to know the lifecycle of items and plan to retire and replace items on a regular schedule. All that while understanding the funding demands of changes in fuel costs or an increase in enrollment and having plans to address the unknown.”
Ackles says that the secret—if there is one—to the success of the roles partnership, collaboration and technology play in building a better platform for learning is two-fold. “The first two items work hand in hand, whether that is partnerships with your teachers in the development of curriculum or with community organizations/business partners to design learning experiences for students, and part of that can happen over the existing and emerging technological platforms like Zoom or the virtual experiences that different simulators can offer.”
Budget me this…
One of the more interesting items on every school’s to-do list is walking the tightrope between investing in things that will last against ever-tightening budgets. When it comes to areas like technology, some schools can maximize their tech dollars by having tech integration plans where effective users of technology in the classroom help guide the decisions as to what is purchased.
In addition, the broader goals of the district have to be considered. While technology may be considered an equity issue, a district may decide to allocate additional funding in tech to help students to catch up. But none of that is as important as the administrator leading the charge.
When it comes to balancing investing with tight budgets, it often comes down to how a school district defines things that last. “Budgeting regularly requires tough choices,” Ackles says. “One year it might mean a school bus isn’t replaced so that laptops can be purchased on the replacement cycle. The following year the opposite may be the case. Again it comes down to what the district and community are looking for in terms of the goals for the district. What have those conversations about collaboration produced between district leaders and the community?”
Ackles says it is imperative to specifically know what your district’s goals are and budget accordingly. Is there a guiding strategic plan that measures how your money is spent? Also, include all of your leaders in the decision-making early and often. Be transparent with the goals and how a particular budget reflects those goals. In the end, nothing beats keeping your ear to the ground and head on a swivel. “The key is to stay the course and embrace the changes that have occurred during the last 24 months, Kerbow says. “It is quite possible that the pandemic represents an evolutionary step in how things are done for the foreseeable future. I would not expect things to return to what they were pre-pandemic, although some things may do so. If we continue looking in the rearview mirror toward how things were, we will not be prepared to make the necessary changes to what the future holds for us as procurement officials.”