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Where to Begin?

It all starts with collaborative leadership and a vision of student learning.

plan Three steps – investigating, planning and implementing – can guide district leaders in identifying the funding needed to implement a technology plan that aligns with the Wisconsin 4K-12 visions for digital learning environments. The transition to digital learning requires a clear understanding of what digital learning “looks like” and therefore begins with a vision statement and a technology plan that support that understanding. Key to the success will be the engagement of all stakeholder groups in the process in ways that enable them to become informed, contributing members whose voices are heard throughout the process.

This transformative budgeting process takes time but helps ensure success in efficiently realizing the goals. Skipping a step or completing it in haste can result in missed opportunities with long-term implications for cost savings.

Step 1 - Investigate

investigate The investigation stage is critical for district leaders to become informed about cost savings through efficiencies with digital tools, resources, and network infrastructure and about possible supplemental funding streams. It is also the stage for a clear understanding of district data, such as device and network readiness gaps or other technology readiness databases and the costs for technical support, maintenance and professional development.

This is the time for district leaders to ask questions such as, “What are possible cost savings with mobile technology, cloud computing solutions or digital instructional content to replace textbooks? Is Bring- Your-Own-Devices (BYOD) feasible for assessment or for digital learning? Should we transition to a 1-to-1 program? Will incorporation of blended or online learning options produce savings? How can we leverage E-Rate discounts? Can we move communications online with a goal of becoming paperless? Where are sources of alternate or supplemental funding? Where have other districts found cost savings and alternate funding sources?”

A review of the efficiencies made possible through new, innovative uses of technology should enable education leaders to rethink budgets in ways that are transformative, not additive. Districts will benefit from thinking about a combination of avenues for cost savings and funding such as:

  • Cost savings through the use of digital tools and resources
  • Efficiencies through re-allocation of existing district funding and resources
  • Re-visiting state or federal funding for opportunities for digital resources
  • Partnerships with parents and the community
  • Renegotiating contracts with vendors and online content providers and identifying opportunities for collective buying power through collaboration with other districts on technology purchases

A cross-functional leadership team can “divide and conquer” this investigation by distributing investigative responsibilities. For example, some members can participate in conferences, others discuss strategies with other districts or experts, while others may examine current vendor agreements to seek lower cost alternatives. The team can then convene to share, discuss and build scenarios for implementing strategies and share those possibilities with stakeholders for their feedback, and ultimately, their buy-in. Districts often skip this investigation step and move directly to planning and implementing, with the risk of missing significant cost-saving options and reverting to traditional budgeting processes.

In the section Learning from Other Districts that follows below, three districts, Springfield Public Schools in NJ, Baltimore County School District in MD, and Plumsted Township School District in NJ, highlight strategies for re-allocating existing funds to align with a priority for digital learning. All the district scenarios included in this section illustrate innovative strategies for cost savings by leveraging digital solutions. A section on additional Funding Sources in this document lists historical sources of funding to investigate or revisit for funding options.

Step 2 - Plan

planPlanning Phase 1:

The planning process begins with the cross-functional team together with members from finance, technology (educational, informational and assistive), curriculum, assessment, instruction, parents, students and any other stakeholders with an interest in digital learning. Having such a team of stakeholders participating in this process will help clarify goals and strategies for the district, make assumptions explicit and build consensus. Starting with the district strategic plan for transitioning to a digital learning environment, the team agrees upon priorities; identifies the cost-saving strategies to implement, and matches digital learning and assessment expenditures with appropriate funding

Mark Edwards, the previous Superintendent for Mooresville Graded School District in North Carolina, who spearheaded the widely acclaimed “21st Century Digital Conversion” program, believes that teachers need meaningful, sustained professional development and the time to complete it. The district builds ten early-release days into the school year for professional development. Each summer more than 90% of teachers attend a Mooresville summer training institute. Prior to the digital conversion, teachers were encouraged to experiment and collaborate to find the most effective methods and digital learning resources.

In addition, they identify evaluation metrics to use to ensure learning return on investment. A thorough investigation in Step 1 prepares the team for this collaborative work. The team also develops a roadmap that identifies the following:

  • which technology and support are mission-critical and must be done immediately
  • what can be done within three years
  • what is longer term, though planning beyond five years may be impractical.

They take into consideration technology support and maintenance services and teacher and administrator professional development.

Planning Phase 2:

With planning in place, the district is now staged for transformative zero-based budgeting, a process by which innovations in schools can hopefully be accomplished within existing budgets. Unlike additive budgeting, zero-based budgeting begins from a zero base; nothing is in the budget simply because it was there previously. Expenditures for digital conversion are built dollar by dollar from the ground up. Items are added only when there is evidence that such costs are required to meet upcoming goals.

Transformative zero-based budgeting eliminates outdated efforts and expenditures and concentrates resources where they are the most effective. The process reduces the risk of automatically including existing programs that might not support new goals.

Step 3 - Implement

plan At this stage, the district may be implementing some or all of Elements of Transformative Zero- Based Budgeting for Digital Learning and Assessment

  • The budget begins with a zero base, with no expenditures held over from a previous budget.
  • Budget line items align with district’s strategic plan for digital conversion.
  • A cross-functional team prioritizes expenditures based on evidence that the costs are required to meet goals and creates a roadmap for a 3-5 year plan.
  • The team identifies supplemental sources of funding through new revenue streams or by re-visiting historical funding options (i.e., E- Rate, parent and community donations, textbook funds, etc.)
  • For example, they may be piloting 1-to-1 programs or BYOD in a class or school; may be taking the first steps toward digital communication, or may be developing blended learning courses. They will be applying the evaluation metrics they identified for learning return on investment as these initiatives are implemented.

Critical to success in implementation is to ensure the district has the buy-in of the broad group of stakeholders who will participate either directly or indirectly in the new programs or processes taking place, such as parents, students and the community. As part of this buy-in, some districts may also seek supplemental funding from these stakeholders.

Successful districts strongly advocate for carefully laying the groundwork with stakeholders in order to secure their support. Following are some tips from school leaders:

  • Be ready to sell your story. District and school leaders not only need to believe in the district’s vision and plan but need to tell the story confidently. In Forest Grove School District, in Oregon, for example, building principals have emerged as critical players in convincing the board and the community of the urgency of prioritizing funding to support a digital conversion essential for their vision to engage students and transform learning. They had to be well prepared to answer game-changing questions regarding safety concerns and in describing what digital learning looks like.
  • Strategic communication with stakeholders: Parents, the community, business groups, the chamber of commerce and other key stakeholders need to hear and embrace the story in order to respond to appeals for funding. As one district leader noted, “There is no substitute for getting out into the community” to convince them to help identify sources of funding.
  • Prepare teachers to understand and embrace the shift to digital learning. Teachers generate the excitement with their students for learning. Some districts recommend that funding begins with providing teachers and administrators with devices and meaningful, sustained professional development, to prepare them for the transition to digital instruction and learning and that this is done before the purchase of student devices. Input from teachers early on will ensure money is directed for purchasing technology tools and resources teachers believe will improve student learning.

For example, Mark Edwards, former Superintendent for Mooresville Graded School District, found it took two years to build trust, enthusiasm and a shared vested interest in the district’s now highly acclaimed 1-to-1 initiative. Preparing for a digital conversion began with the “why”: “Why are we taking on this initiative and what do we want to accomplish with it?” For Mooresville, that meant improving student engagement in their learning, preparing students for the 21st-century workplace, closing achievement gaps and increasing graduation rates. The process of creating a shared vision for digital learning and development of a strategic plan that aligns with that vision prepares districts to answer the “why.” But to move on to “how” districts can secure the funding to support that strategic plan, districts have to first lay the groundwork by securing support from stakeholders.