Launch Technology Projects During a Fiscal Crisis?

Posted by Kevin Silberberg on October 31, 2011

Most District administrators are aware of the service FCMAT (Fiscal Crisis Management Assessment Team) provides each day in the way of the top education related headlines throughout the state. If it involves schools, and was in the paper, you can be sure that FCMAT captures the link and makes it very easy to read how school districts up and down the state are making the news.  Usually, it is a good day when you don’t see your district as a link on this website.

That being said, an article caught my eye today that speaks to the dilemma we face in California better than anything I have seen in years.  The article, “What happens if city schools go insolvent?,” describes the San Diego Unified School District’s possible financial collapse that could require a state takeover to keep the district afloat.

As a district administrator, I know well what state takeover would mean.  It is a cliff you walk over and seldom fully recover.  Here are the first actions that you can look forward to.

  • The superintendent would be immediately fired and replaced by a state appointed administrator.
  • The school board would lose all powers and become an advisory panel.
  • The state administrator would essentially become the district’s new leader and have the power to unilaterally make decisions, such as which property to sell, what academic programs to cut, which schools to shutter and who to lay off. After labor contracts expire, the administrator could impose district-wide cuts to pay and benefits.

Very depressing!  But this doesn’t tell the entire story.  Earlier in my day of reading, I had read with great envy an eSchool News special report on a visionary technology program that was being implemented in—you guessed it—the San Diego Unified School District.

Two years ago, the district embarked on a five-year journey to transform its classrooms and completely revamp the way San Diego students learn.  Since that time, the Interactive Classroom Initiative (i21) has expanded into more than 1,300 classrooms and has distributed some 78,000 netbooks and other mobile devices to teachers and students.

I can only imagine the planning, effort and vision the district has into this project.  To get all the stakeholders together on the same page to move forward is amazing and should be applauded.  The professional development alone in this program would be the envy of school districts who dream of one day moving their teachers and administrators forward embracing the appropriate use of technology that helps teachers teach and students learn.

So here we have the problem facing most schools in California.  Schools have to live within their means to make it in this economy.  With triggers about to be pulled and mid-year cuts on their way, we can in no way pull off projects like the i21 program and expect to stay away from state takeover.

Would financial insolvency mean the end of the SDUSD i21 program?  I hope not.  Unfortunately, the lesson many district officials may read into the San Diego Unified School District financial problem is: don’t risk any new initiatives; fund highly traditional low-tech expenditures; and make it through the toughest times ever experienced in California public education.

The better lesson is: we can’t do it all, and sustaining is the name of the game.  We must strive to prepare students for the technology-rich world our kids will enter while managing to stay solvent in these turbulent and trying economic times.


3 thoughts on “Launch Technology Projects During a Fiscal Crisis?”

  1. I know that asking parents to pay for anything is yet another sticky wicket. However, in the most recent Speak Up Report, two-thirds of parents surveyed nationally stated unequivocally that, if their child’s school would permit it’s use in a classroom, they would be willing to pay for a mobile device. May be time to rethink Ed. Code. It would be a lot easier to figure out how to cover the cost for those families that really can’t afford it instead of paying for everyone.

  2. From my experience as a superintendent, I can say that the fiscal stability of a district is related mostly to the cost of personnel and benefits. If a district can be conservative in that area then it allows some room to do new projects. I realize it is difficult to get to a conservative contract place if a district has a history of not doing that. The silver lining of these hard times may be forcing districts to be over conservative in their contracts now so that later they can do great things.

  3. Hey, while we’re on the subject of sustaining a decent program during tight economic times, I gotta plug the article, “Getting More Value Out of the Technology You Already Have,” in the September/October issue of ACSA’s Leadership magazine. Learn more.

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