How to Manage — and Maximize — a Classroom Tech Budget

K-12 technology directors have a major challenge: Get high-performing technology into schools without a lot of funding. This list can help.

Information Technology, K-12 Education

There are new challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects on classroom education. Yet, when it comes to classroom technology, most educators would agree that students need up-to-date resources to help them learn and to prepare for adulthood in a digital world.

Finding the money for educational resources isn’t so clear-cut. 

“We never seem to have enough technology dollars to go around,” says Doug Johnson, director of technology of the 9,000-student Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District 191 in Minnesota. “Oftentimes the funding we have is unreliable depending on the whims of legislators, and tech demands continue to grow and grow and grow.” 

Part of the job of a technology director at a K-12 school or district is to manage a limited budget and make efforts to boost it whenever possible. Johnson, who is the author of nine books on educational technology and school libraries, offers some advice. 

1. Form a technology committee.

Team up with teachers and administrators to find out their tech needs and wishes, and make sure the technology you have is aligned with what they’re trying to accomplish in the classroom. Being in regular communication with key stakeholders, such as your administrators and school board members, will help you gather the information you need when requesting more money. 

Put what you’re trying to say in plain English, and don’t be afraid to define key terms, Johnson says. 

“Some IT professionals have a hard time taking that tech lingo — wireless access points, routers, firewalls — and translating it so that budgeters and decision-makers can understand,” he says. “Don’t just say what the technology does, but say why it’s important.” 

2. Make a long-term budget.

Don’t plan for one year, Johnson says; plan for four or five at a time. The technology budget in Johnson’s district focuses on the high schools the first year, the middle schools the second year, the elementary schools the third year and infrastructure upgrades the fourth year. 

“And then that cycle will repeat, because at the end of four years, our high school Chromebooks are ready for the recycling bin,” he says.

A related takeaway? Never buy more equipment than you can afford to replace every five or so years. 

3. Buy in groups.

You’ll want to ensure that all the schools in your district are buying a service or technology together, rather than piecemeal, to take advantage of group pricing. 

“You’re going to get a discount for buying in quantity, but you’re also going to ensure districtwide compatibility,” Johnson says. “You won’t have eight different systems that you have to train people on or stock spare parts for.” 

Even better, you can join a purchasing cooperative with other districts. Educational service agencies work as a purchasing agent for all their members. 

And don’t forget about the federal government’s E-Rate program, in which schools can buy internet service and some hardware at a discount. (Note: See how E-Rate deadlines have been affected due to the pandemic.) Because the application process is complex and requires a lot of documentation, Johnson recommends hiring an E-Rate consultant to make sure you’re getting the best service and to avoid trouble in case of an audit. 

4. Do a cost-benefit analysis of local servers versus cloud storage.

Again, think of costs over a five-year period. Moving to the cloud might cost more upfront, but you could save a large amount of employee time — and therefore money — by not having to maintain local servers. 

At the same time, local servers that are efficient and easy to maintain can be left in place while they’re still working fine, Johnson says. 

That’s why Johnson’s district is a hybrid of cloud-based and local servers, he says. He thinks of these legacy servers as an old car in your garage; you might get better gas mileage with a new car, but it still makes the most financial sense to drive the old car until it dies or requires costly repairs. 

5. Take advantage of free software.

An increasing number of programs are now free and easily accessible. For example, Google’s G Suite for Education provides word processing, email, presentation and quiz capabilities. Johnson’s district uses Seesaw, which offers an activity library and portfolios where students can store their work. A wealth of creativity software is also available online — for example, GIMP or Photo Pos Pro for photo editing, as well as options for video and music production. 

Make sure you do your homework on these software options before using one in the classroom, Johnson says. 

“The key to selecting ‘free’ software is not just the quality of the content, but knowing how these producers make their money — offering paid versions, selling advertisements or selling student data — and making informed choices from there,” he says. 

6. Prepare for greater network density and capacity.

The internet of things is coming to the classroom — and you’re going to need more bandwidth. Preparing for more devices now can save money and effort in the future. 

Johnson saw this evolution firsthand in his district. Not long ago, each classroom had one or two devices. Now, with every student having a Chromebook, each classroom has 30 to 40 devices accessing the network. Johnson had to increase bandwidth and upgrade the firewall and internet filter, which had limited throughput capacity. 

Technology directors would be wise to plan for upgrades as part of the budget, rather than waiting until it’s an emergency. 

 7. Follow the “five-year rule” when repairing technology.

Avoid spending money on old technology, Johnson says. 

“People can use it as long as they want to, but once it reaches five years old we won’t pay to have it repaired anymore,” he says. Older devices are likelier to break and lack the bells and whistles of new technology, and they can’t be upgraded to meet modern security requirements. 

Communicate openly with teachers and staff about why some of their beloved technologies can no longer be supported, and offer to help them learn a new system.