As the chief management analyst for the Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance Team (FCMAT) in Bakersfield, Calif., Michelle Plumbtree has gotten up close and personal with a number of educational technology professionals and departments—many of which were struggling to balance classroom technology and infrastructure needs against limited institutional budgets.
And she says ed tech departments should consider rethinking a few things as technology becomes a larger part of institutional budgets.
“The area of technology is expanding too quickly, and it’s becoming more and more expensive to keep up with,” says Plumbtree, whose organization was created under AB1200, a California state law enacted after the bankruptcy of a few California districts. And while Plumbtree says that many districts and institutions are “getting there” on the technology front, the financial aspect of that charge tends to trip up even the most financially savvy institution.
Budgeting for the future, for example, is a particularly onerous task for ed tech departments that have to not only address current needs, but also future requirements. “If [IT] doesn’t have solid systems and networks in place now, they’re going to be in trouble down the line,” says Plumbtree, “both in terms of the technology itself and the related funding.”
To institutions looking to get out in front of that challenge and make good financial decisions now, Plumbtree offers these five often-overlooked strategies:
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1. Avoid the use of “rollover budgeting” tactics
. If your institution is using rollover budgeting to manage technology purchases and related expenses, “you’re doing yourself a disservice,” says Plumbtree, who defines rollover budgeting as taking fiscal year (FY) 2016’s budget and just assuming you’ll spend the same amount of money in 2017. “No two years are the same,” says Plumbtree. When it comes time to lay out the budget for the coming year, she says the best approach is to simply start at zero and look at every line of your budget to figure out what running a good department for the next 12 months will actually cost. “The key is to buy what you actually need,” says Plumbtree, “instead of assuming that last year was ‘enough.’” Using the zeroing-out strategy can also help ed tech departments save money. “Just because you spent $50,000 on a certain contract last year,” says Plumbtree, doesn’t mean you need the same amount this coming year. But if you just keep rolling things over, you’ll never know.”
2. Renegotiate your maintenance contracts regularly. If you’re using maintenance contracts with any of your vendors, Plumbtree suggests negotiating those agreements upfront in order to keep the related costs at bay. If those contracts include licensing fees, maintenance fees, or some other type of cost, for example, she says a good strategy is to negotiate a 2- or 3-year contract in advance. “This can help you keep down some of the costs that you know are going to increase every year,” she says.
3. Carefully consider the “lease versus buy” decision. “A lot of institutions have negative views on leasing equipment, but there are benefits to taking this route,” says Plumbtree. For example, if your department doesn’t have the money to shell out upfront to buy the machines or equipment outright, then leasing—even if it does wind up costing more over time—may be the best choice. “When you lease, you can spread the payments out over several years and effectively support your entity without having to use up your entire budget,” says Plumbtree. “If you don’t have the cash flow right now, and if you don’t have access to financing, then leasing may be the answer.”
4. Consider outsourcing. Some institutions are large enough to be able to handle all of their ed tech requirements in-house. Others could use a little outside assistance, says Plumbtree, who advises institutions to look at their own internal capabilities and resources before making this decision. Some of the work that can be outsourced include technology helpdesk support, technology infrastructure support, curriculum/instruction development, and professional development, to name a few. “Whether you enlist outside service providers or not is a very individual decision,” she says. “It really depends on your own in-house expertise. If it’s lacking in any area, there are a lot of outside providers that can help when doing things in-house just doesn’t make sense anymore.
5. Keep ed tech in the limelight. It’s easy for technology to fall into the background, especially when the technology tools, applications, and equipment are working well and doing what they’re supposed to do. But just like the company that shouldn’t ignore its new client pipeline—even when business is booming—ed tech departments must focus on the future. “Make sure ed-tech stays part of the conversation, particularly at the board and management levels,” says Plumbtree, who points to equipment replacement and technology standards/policies as two areas that should remain top-of-mind. “Ed-tech won’t be forgotten or overlooked if you talk about these issues at the board level and create policies around the most important points.”