Six Information Technology (IT) Areas New Superintendents Should Review
Written by Debbie Karcher
This is the time of year when superintendent changes and announcements are made. Districts do not like to change leadership in the middle of a school term so as districts prepare for the 2019-20 school year there is a lot of leadership shuffling going on. New superintendents will try to quickly establish academic, community, and operational goals but unless specifically hired to solve an IT issue this is not the area a new superintendent will immediately focus his/her attention.
But in the meantime, many problems could exist or are emerging in the IT organization. Superintendents should or have a trusted individual examine the following areas: equal access to technology in all schools, e-rate, IT contracts, personnel adds/reductions over five-years and future staff retirements, cyber security and protecting student and employee data, and if possible, try to capture an IT satisfaction rate.
- Equal access to technology in all schools – There are two methods to determine this. School site visits will immediately demonstrate device and digital content usage in the classroom and media center. Listen for complaints about slow or no internet. This will provide a quick list of schools with good and poor technology.
Statistics should also be available for device and curriculum usage. You will immediately know, by location, which schools are utilizing their technology. If you do not have usage numbers, then this is an opportunity to put measurements in place. If you do have these numbers than have interviews with high-usage school personnel to determine best practices.
- E-rate – Generally what people know about e-rate, outside of the e-rate office is that districts can receive funding, based on their free and reduced lunch rate, for their telecommunications and infrastructure costs from the federal government. What most people do not realize is that e-rate is highly audited and regulated. School districts can be fined and lose their e-rate eligibility if all conditions are not met. The other problem is that districts may not be using their e-rate at all which is essentially a fiscal loss leaving the district open to criticism.
To mitigate these risks the new superintendent should request a walkthrough of the district’s e-rate process, the dollars requested over the past five years, the dollars approved and received, disapproved requests (this could be very telling) open contracts related to e-rate, and open or pending audits. A third-party expert review of the e-rate process may be needed if there is any question that e-rate is not being fully or correctly utilized.
- IT Contracts – A new superintendent should request a report of all open contracts with beginning, end-dates, extension terms, pricing, and originating or responsible division. There should be a central depository of these contracts from purchasing or legal. This will provide insight into the number of systems managed by IT and the number of systems managed by other units such as Human Capital, Transportation, and Student Academics. The superintendent may find a very distributed computing environment leading to system and personnel duplication, low or no system utilization, as well as data privacy and usage issues. These are opportunities for cost savings and improving operational efficiencies.
- Personnel adds/reductions over five-years and future staff retirements – The superintendent should be looking for staffing trends, not only in IT, but in all areas. Since the Great Recession of 2007 it has been the perception that districts’ central administration is bloated and over-staffed, and an area where reductions have taken place. True or not, these reductions, coupled with past and future retirements, will reduce the institutional knowledge and expertise in an organization, leaving a void in areas that new hires cannot replace. Older systems are vulnerable to technical failures and these systems may take longer to get back online.
There are several ways to mitigate the risk, such as outsourcing and using experts on an as need basis (this can include recent retirees) and replace older systems with third-party systems. Using contracting services can be a short-term solution while a long-term solution is put in place. Setting new service level expectations with your users is imperative since their service level may experience a decline while you develop a solution.
- Cyber security and protecting student and employee data – Having data stolen or being the victim of a cyber-attack, ransomware or identify theft are all a part of doing business today. Mitigating the risks and having a cyber security plan all help in the event of an attack. There are two things you can do in the near-term to determine the degree of risk. The first is perform vulnerability assessment and penetration tests. These tests will provide a view of the threats that the organization may be facing in their software, hardware, and infrastructure. If these tests have already been performed, then the new superintendent should not assume that all remedies have been put in place and request a status of the activities. The second is to make sure the district has purchased cybersecurity insurance to protect the district in the event of an attack. Over the course of time you will need to develop a comprehensive plan that addresses processes and procedures, software, hardware and the culture.
- Lastly, try to baseline how the IT department is perceived. Surveys generated from help desk tickets can be random and intermittent. If this is not available then develop an electronic survey that is simple with yes/no answers and room for comments questions. There will be some very quick activities that can be implemented to improve services or set new expectations based on the number and quality of the workforce. Once the new service level is known then plans can be developed to improve the service.
The above is meant as a checklist for new superintendents but they can be performed at any time by sitting superintendent or a Chief Information Officer. It provides a good pulse of the IT organization and can allow administration to reprioritize activities, reset service levels, and develop strategies for technology in the district.