How School Districts Can Maximize Their Budgets & Find Funds for Education IT Projects
How do you keep your school district away from the fiscal cliff and still educate students? That’s an ongoing question that legislators, administrators, educators, and the public are debating here in Texas during our biennium budget year. And there’s no easy answer.
Since the start of the pandemic, school districts have relied upon billions from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) plan or other federal pandemic relief funds to stabilize education initiatives. However, those cash reserves will soon go away at the end of the ‘23/’24 school year, forcing state legislators and administrators to find funding sources capable of replacing at least 9.58% of total state education revenue.
For large districts which grew dependent on these federal resources, especially to help with post-COVID recovery learning programs, this is a disaster waiting to happen. Administrators have been hopeful the legislature will close the funding gap without requiring them to dip into their savings, but that is not guaranteed. That leaves administrators with a few conundrums:
- What programs should our district cut?
- Where can we unlock additional sources of funding?
- Are we going to need to decrease the number of full-time employees?
Though there are no easy answers, here are a few best practices I’ve identified while helping school districts in Texas and beyond to maximize their IT budgets. Don’t worry, you can stay innovative, secure, and efficient without falling off the fiscal cliff.
Doubling Fund Usage
Though Title 1 is on a proposed list of cuts by members of the House Appropriations Committee, these grants have historically provided school districts with a more predictable source of project funding, even for technology. The only caveat for administrators is that their applications adhere to strict stipulations.
For example, schools or districts with a large population of Title 1 students can often find sufficient funding for hardware or software when it’s primarily used to support the learning activities of children from low-income families. Also, districts can pair those funds with the Instructional Materials and Technology Allotment to invest in teaching materials, technology, or even vital software and systems. Proper planning can help to create complementary usage of otherwise scarce resources.
When your school is experiencing an enrollment growth spurt, you can outpace your IT budget and consume your available funding faster than you expect. Fortunately, the state of Texas long ago created a bond guarantee program to empower school districts to generate funds during tight fiscal situations. All bonds issued by school districts or charter schools are backed by the Permanent School Fund (PSF), which has an AAA rating from the major rating services.
Technology purchases can often be included in bond referendums, allowing K-12 schools to maintain network infrastructure and purchase PCs, tablets, and other hardware. Since these bonds tend to mature over a five-year period, school districts need to purchase warranties and buy high-quality products to sustain the quality of their investment.
Organizations applying to take part in these bond guarantee programs must apply through the TEA and the approved commissioner of education to receive funding. They must adhere to all State Board of Education rules, pass an audit of their FIRST rating, maintain financial solvency, and meet other criteria. Though each school needs to pass these parameters, the results can provide needed funds to supplement larger alternative sources.
Using What’s Left of Emergency Connectivity Funds
Though most of the programs conceived to address remote learning for COVID-19 have been exhausted, there are still some of the FCC’s Emergency Connectivity Funds (ECF) remaining. Specifically, there’s one round left for public and charter schools as well as libraries to buy equipment such as Wi-Fi hotspots, modems, routers, and connected devices. However, school districts need to move fast or miss out.
There are some limitations to the allotment. The ECF caps out at $400 per device and $250 per Wi-Fi hotspot, which can be stretched if you’re buying devices in bulk and earning a discount rate. Another consideration is the district must pay for hardware themselves up front, receiving reimbursement only after the application’s compliance has been verified. This means it’s important to triple check your understanding of the program’s parameters and that your purchased order adheres to the ECF criteria.
Pursuing E-Rate Funds
How can you make telecommunications and internet access more affordable for schools? Again, the FCC provides programs that can help reduce connectivity costs without reducing quality. The E-Rate Universal Service Program for Schools and Libraries offers discounts that range from 20% to 90% based on the poverty level of your student population (essentially, it’s based on the same principles of free and reduced lunch rates).
The idea is very straightforward. Let’s say you are going to buy a 10-Gigabit internet pipe. If the typical price for your internet service was $2,000 a month, there’s a possibility for the most disadvantaged schools to pay as little as $200 per month. In this scenario, districts need to submit a request for competitive bids to the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC), await vendor responses, and select the most cost-effective products and services. From there, your district would need to submit requests for reimbursement, receiving a possible $1,800 back to your budget.
That’s not the only application. The state recently decided E-Rate funds could be used to promote connectivity on school buses and are working out the logistics and classifications. Programs like this can empower students traveling longer distances for athletics, field trips, or even to their homes in more rural areas to maximize their time with schoolwork.
Though the application process is not difficult, districts need to maintain, sustain, and closely monitor their IT inventory and services. Federal agencies can audit the E-Rate program as far back as ten years, determining what happened to any applicable hardware to see how the technology has been utilized and disposed of.
Leveraging Group Rates
Pooling risk and resources are common practices across private-sector industries, so why shouldn’t it be embraced in the education sector? We’re increasingly seeing more IT leaders building partnerships with other schools and regional service centers to qualify for group rate discounts and stretch the capacity of their budgets.
Here’s an example. Many regional service centers have developed consortia to implement discounts through WAN connectivity and purchasing power. This resource sharing has empowered each entity to control their costs while delivering quality services to administrators, faculty, and students.
Want another example? Let’s say one school has an IT professional who provides indispensable expertise maintaining a critical system that accounts for 10% of a facility’s operational performance. If this person’s talents are not maximized, you can move them to the district level or even share their experience across districts or educational service centers. This can transform one resource into an essential specialist while freeing up other members of your IT workforce to focus on a greater variety of issues.
Avoiding Sunken Cost Decisions
How well is your current hardware, software, and infrastructure working for you? As leaders, we need to regularly analyze our current IT assets, identifying what works while pinpointing the devices and solutions that are inefficient, obsolete, or redundant.
There’s often a temptation to keep putting patches on existing IT assets, making do with duct tape and baling wire rather than investing in a more economical or productive solution. Or equally bad, buying expensive applications which your schools only use 10% of the full capacity. Rather than clinging to wasteful arrangements, it’s better for IT leaders to assert the need to abandon what’s familiar in favor of more cost-effective and surgical solutions.
Avoid Free Resources
Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, right? Though school districts might be tempted to adopt free IT resources to reallocate funds elsewhere, every “free” resource comes with a catch. There’s the saying that if you’re not paying for the product, then you are the product, and that’s an unacceptable bargain when students’ data becomes a commodity for tech companies to buy, sell, and trade.
Even if software providers are offering solutions without strings attached, there’s a risk the company might vanish soon without a source of revenue. Or after you’ve grown dependent upon their offering, they might decide to charge your users to resume access. There are a number of ways in which free resources can backfire in the long run, so avoid them completely.
Staying Efficient into the Future
The funding game is never ending. If you’re able to allocate additional capital or streamline your current expenses, what happens if budgets are trimmed further in the future? How are you going to sustain what you started?
In our experience, the solution is to stay current with a range of educational funding programs, evolving legislation, and resources in your network, so you never fall short when funding is needed.
Want to elevate education in a digital world? Learn about how our education technology solutions can simplify the next IT project for your school district or service center.