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Cash for Chromebooks: Budgeting Tips for the Technology Department

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‘Tis the season: as we approach the end of the year, families are preparing to gather over festive meals, students will head home for winter break… and department heads in schools everywhere will joyfully begin to put together their budgets for the next school year.
For K-12 IT professionals, that not only means keeping accurate tabs on the devices in your schools, it also means making the case for a technology budget that the Finance department can get behind. In this episode of Field Trip, Frontline’s podcast for leaders in education, resident asset management expert AnnaMaria Gallozzi joins us to look at how Technology departments can set themselves up for success in the next budgeting season and ensure students and staff have access to the tools they need for teaching and learning.


Listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify.

We explore:

  • Pitfalls to avoid during budgeting season
  • How to make the case to Finance for your technology budget
  • Short-term and long-term timing considerations
  • The single biggest thing you can do to position yourself for success in the coming year


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Episode Transcript

RYAN ESTES: When I was a kid, I remember when our family got our first computer. This was the mid-80s, and my dad unpacked an enormous, Leading Edge IBM PC-compatible beige box with a monochrome amber screen and a 5.25-inch floppy disk drive. Along with the noisy dot matrix printer, I think at the time it cost around two grand, which in today’s dollars would be over 5,600 bucks.
I’m really glad computers have gotten cheaper since then, and since most schools now provide every student with their own device, or at least most middle and high schools, it’s a good thing that Chromebooks and entry level laptops can be had for only a few hundred dollars. That said, once you multiply that by every student and staff member in your schools, and then add in all your other technology spending on smart boards and networks and software and security and maintaining everything, it can be a pretty hefty price tag at the end of the day.
That’s why today I’m joined by my colleague AnnaMaria Gallozzi, who works here at Frontline Education to provide school districts with the tools and practices they need to make smart decisions around their technology. From Frontline Education, this is Field Trip.
So, AnnaMaria, welcome to Field Trip.
ANNAMARIA GALLOZZI: Hi, I’m so excited to be here with you today.
RYAN: Well, I’m glad you’re here, too. Today we’re going to have a conversation about budget planning for school Technology departments, and specifically how they can work most effectively with the Finance department. But let’s begin with the why. I know that you spend a lot of time working with schools on this stuff. When it comes to Technology and Finance, what are some of the common pitfalls that you’d like to help school districts avoid?
ANNAMARIA: I think the most common pitfall overall is going to be communication. So, oftentimes you have our Technology departments and our Finance departments working in silos and not having ways to effectively communicate with one another. And it’s oftentimes because the two are so focused on different pieces, right?
Our Finance department is really focused on budgeting, understanding what the school district needs from a financial standpoint, where our Technology departments are often looking at, “What do we have? How do we continue to ensure that our staff and students have the technology they need to be successful? How do we continue with trends while making sure that we’re educating people on how to use these items?”
And so they’re looking at two very different data points, and that communication overlay doesn’t happen often in a way that either department feels comfortable talking about, right? Technology wants to understand what staff and teachers need and what our students need, but they’re often not looking at the budgetary purposes of it.
They say, “Oh, Finance can figure that out. But when Finance starts to figure that out, they’re not understanding why we need the new smart boards that are coming out, and how the ones that we currently have are end of life. And what does that look like? And why are our Chromebooks end of life? We’ve had them for three years.
And so trying to give tools to both Finance and Technology that will make them communicate more effectively with data points that not only matter to technology, but will also matter to Finance, I think is one of the things that our teams struggle with together. So how do I make what I care about translate into what the other department cares about?
RYAN: Right now we’re recording this in early November 2023, we’re about to enter the school budgeting cycle. So talk to me about budgeting, because I know that it’s really important for personal finances, but super critical when you’re dealing with big numbers and really complex purchasing needs like school districts have. What is important for Technology departments to consider when building a budget, especially when it comes to collaborating with Finance?
ANNAMARIA: You know, I’m happy you called out when we’re recording this, because right now we’re seeing the trend for 2024 is we’re losing COVID funding. And what that means is CARES and ESSER and E-Connectivity and all the different pieces that we really relied on over the last three to four years to become a one-to-one school district.
And most of the school districts that we talked to are one to one instead of Bring Your Own Device like they used to be or charging carts where they were shared devices. So now as we look into what’s important, it’s been three or four years since we’ve had these bulk purchases of Chromebooks or iPads or MacBooks to get into the hands of students. And that also includes those hotspots. Chromebooks are fantastic, but if you ever picked up a Chromebook, they’re pretty plastic and students are pretty rough, whether they’re throwing them in their backpack to go home or they’re just, you know, using them as frisbees. We’ve seen everything across schools.
And so not only should school districts look at what they have now in inventory, what’s missing, What they’re going to need for end of life of devices, because Chromebooks do have a seven year shelf life, but a lot of our schools have a projected life of four years. So what does that mean? How many bulk assets am I going to have to purchase?  
We’re also going to need to look at enrollment. Unfortunately, across the United States, enrollment numbers are dipping. Our public schools are losing enrollment. Charter schools might be gaining enrollment or private schools even. And so how does what we’re tracking for technology now map with the enrollment numbers that we have? And we’re also in a staffing crisis. So how many staff members do we have? And it might be significantly less than when you originally purchased. So looking at our enrollment numbers, at our FTE numbers, our full time employee counts, outside of just teachers and credentialed staff, but also other staff members like school nurses who also get Chromebooks or even laptops. What do I need to do to map my inventory to my enrollment numbers, to my staff, to FTE? And then further, what’s coming end of life? What’s no longer working?
So when I was in school, and I’m going to date myself a little bit here, we had those overhead projectors. We also had TVs on carts. Those are no longer things that schools are using, right? So they’ve moved away from televisions altogether and they’re using these smart boards that can connect and mirror devices. But those smart boards constantly are changing. So how do we keep our schools connected with what they were doing without losing what we currently have?
And so some of the data points that our districts are really looking at, I talked about enrollment, I talked about end of life of the devices from the manufacturers, their own projected refresh cycles. So is that three to four years? What do our budgets have? What kind of discounts can I get from vendors if I do buy in bulk? So I might only need 20 computers at one school, but what are we also looking at for those replacements? So would it be more beneficial if I buy a hundred so then I have extra on hand to also give out to students if they break it? This way they’re not down a day or two while we’re trying to repair them.
And then also looking at repair costs. So, have you done a good job of keeping track of what you’ve repaired over the years? How much that’s cost for each repair for each type of device you’re repairing. And is it oftentimes better to just buy a new device than to spend the man hours and the repair costs on a device? And so looking at all those data points to truly understand, as I go into my 2024-2025 budgeting cycle, what is this going to look like for me to make sure that I have everything on hand that I need?
RYAN: If I’m a Technology director in a school, how do I make the case and then back it up with data that I am going to need to purchase more technology? That can be a big expenditure. So we just talked about the numbers that Finance is looking at, but how do we actually make that case in a way that it’s going to be well received by the finance department?
ANNAMARIA: Oh, well received was the key point there, right? Our students need to learn. And right now, the way that they’re learning to enter into the workforce or universities later on is on technology. It’s where we’re all going. It’s what the world is seeing. And so that emotional appeal, number one, is a really good way to understand, “We need this.” That’s not going to get it over the line.
So the next thing is, how do I come at this analytically? How do I show that what we currently have in inventory doesn’t track with what we need? And there’s a few pieces and ways to get that information.
Number one, you have to keep an inventory. So putting your hands or having someone who puts hands on every device that you have inside the district is going to be step number one. What do I have? Where is it? And how is it currently being used? I remember we did a physical inventory at a school district, but when we got on site, they just had storage closets full of new iPads that were never opened that had been purchased two years prior.
If you don’t know what you have and how is it being used, you’re going to over-purchase or potentially under-purchase. And so that’s going to be step number one. So, do what you need in the technology department to figure out, “What do I have, how is it being used, and where is it?”
Number two, I’m going to harp on this again, look at your enrollment numbers. How many students do I have per campus? Second, look at your staff numbers. How many staff do I have per campus? Then take your inventory from step number one, those enrollments from step number two, and run some analytics. Hopefully you’re using a system that can do that for you, so it’s not as stressful to have to pull all of this from your SIS or HR system, and then your inventory system.
RYAN: And then run around to every different school and get spreadsheets from every principal or technology director there.
ANNAMARIA: Oh yeah, because you know, spreadsheets are not obsolete, no matter how hard we try to make them obsolete. How do we make that easier and do it all in one system? And then from there, now you actually have to dive a little bit deeper into that inventory. And that’s where that model end of life comes into play. That’s where your projected life cycle comes into play and your repair costs come into play. So if you have all of those analytics set up in a nice, clean… honestly, a chart that has graphics that shows where are we with our inventory versus our enrollment versus the cost that it takes to maintain what we currently have, and then the gap for what we need to purchase what’s coming to end of life. How many years do we have left on some of these devices so can we look at budgeting in the next four or five years?
You’ll know your enrollment trends at that point to understand where are we going? Are we losing? Are we gaining? From there, I think you can really have a good case to show analytically why we’re doing this. So if you can present that in a way that is easy to digest, our technology teams are going to be successful.
RYAN: Let’s talk about timing for a second, because we mentioned that we’re here at the, you know, coming into the budgeting process at this time of the year. But as we seek to be good partners with the Finance department, present them information in a way that they’re going to receive it well, what is some of the timing that I’m going to want to consider as I look at, “Okay, I’m going to need to make a case for budget for new equipment or updating our current equipment. How can I best be the kind of partner that Finance is going to want to work with?”
ANNAMARIA: Having these two departments, your Technology and your Finance departments, become partners is going to be key to success overall, whether we’re in budget season or not in budget season, because things are going to pop up outside of budget season that you’re going to need their support and their help on.
And so I talked early on about communication being key, but communication is only part of it. One of those teams is not doing what we need them to do. And so for technology, we want to make sure that we’re going in and we’re auditing. And audit’s a four letter word at a school district. I understand that. So maybe we call it a physical inventory. We’re going in and we’re doing our physical inventories and we’re truly understanding, “What do I have?”
The best time to do that is actually between the Thanksgiving break and your holiday break in December. It’s when the least instruction time is happening. It’s when all devices are on site. There’s no testing normally going on. And so getting that full inventory and getting the help from your staff members, that’s going to be key to do that.  
As we go into timing, after you have that information, we’re now at the beginning of January, which is really when they want those fine tuned numbers. So you’ve already presented some numbers that might be higher or lower than what you were expecting. And you’re going through those budget conversations. So what Finance now is looking at is the grand scheme. How much money are we spending on child nutrition? How much money are we spending in Title I areas and SPED and what do they need as well?
And all of those areas also are part of technology. Technology has a hand in almost every area that Finance has a hand in, too. And oftentimes, all those different departments aren’t communicating with both Technology and Finance. So now we have a whole… if we look at a broken glass, all those different areas that are shattered because they’re just trying to survive in these times. I’m just trying to get what I need to be successful. And quite frankly, I don’t care how it happens, it just needs to happen. So now we have Technology and Finance that are bringing those pieces back together. They’re the glue. And so everyone needs to start communication.
This is a good time to start reaching out to your department heads and trying to understand what are they going to need. Are we going to need any physical therapy devices for our kids? Do we need more Title I? Do we need any type of point of sale system for kitchen and dietary? How is that working for you? Do we need new HVAC systems? How is that being maintained? Right? These are all things that I don’t think people realize Technology and Finance both care about. Because when we think about technology, people are like, “Oh, that’s just like the one to one devices,” and it’s so much more. And so when we’re starting these conversations, that inventory that is hopefully happening between Thanksgiving and that holiday break is going to show up for those technology devices that you think of, the Chromebooks, the iPads, the MacBooks, the smart boards. But they should also be looking at child nutrition. So what point of sales systems? How are your fridges doing?
And I know that sounds so weird, but there are technology pieces to this that they might need to fix. And there are facilities pieces that might need to go into this, right? And so talking to all these departments, getting them together, understanding what everyone’s going to need so that our department heads are going out to Finance together as a united front, saying, “This is how we can be successful together.”
And that starts to happen in January. So in January when they’re all meeting and they’re all trying to understand what the schools have, we’re now going to present what I call the real numbers. So we’ve now presented our wish list, we’ve come in November and we’ve said, “I want the world,” and now we’ve got to boil it down to, “Okay, what can we survive with?” And that’s going to start happening in January. So by February, the budget’s closed and this is your time to have your true numbers and on paper, ready to go, so you can present to the board as well as Finance.
RYAN: Let me ask you about timing a little bit beyond this year, right? Because when we think about budgets, especially when they’re this large, when they’re this complex, it’s good not to just look at the coming year but also perhaps five to ten years out to anticipate what is coming. What kinds of things should Technology departments consider that may not be as near term?
ANNAMARIA: Yeah, it’s a good question. And I paused because, you know, when we talk to districts about this, they consistently say, “I don’t have a magic eight ball. I don’t have that glimpse into the future.” And then we kind force their hand a little bit. And when I say “we,” Finance forces their hand a little to understand where could you be going, right? And I think our technology oftentimes has to be so pinpointed perfect with these that they stress about having to have mock numbers.
Our veterans that have been in school districts for a long time are really good at this because they know the pieces that are going to ebb and flow, and some of it becomes muscle memory, right? Like I know in the next three years, just because of how things have gone in the last ten, what I need to look at. And so someone who’s newer to these positions might have that anxiety as we think about the next five year plan. Most of our technology departments will have a ten year plan that they start off with, and then they do the year by year and it will make changes just like a good corporation.
School districts aren’t that far off from how a corporation works when they come to budgeting. And so when we look at our schools and we’re thinking of that five to ten year plan, yes, model end of life, what type of manufacturers you’re utilizing, are going to come into play. And so, for example, Microsoft sunset a bunch of devices back in 2017 and gave everyone, like, two weeks’ notice that they were going to be sunset.
RYAN: Wow.
ANNAMARIA: That hasn’t happened since then. Manufacturers have realized that’s not a good way to work. And so because manufacturers have realized that, we do know for our Google devices that we have a seven year lifespan. And I think for Apple, it’s a six year lifespan. And so we can truly predict that model end of life.
Now, because we know how students act with these devices, most school districts have a four to five year refresh plan for everything. So I can look at all of that and understand, “Okay, in four to five years, I need to refresh these thousand devices.” And so looking at your projected life, your refresh plan will help you with budgeting overall as we look at the big picture.
But then, Ryan, you brought it up, right? We talk about those repair costs. There are some pieces, printers in classrooms, we think of them as consumables at this point. If they break, it is so much cheaper to just buy a new one than it is to repair them. If our districts are not already looking at repair costs and how much time and money, because time is money, is spent on repairing these assets, and that can be done through your work order system or some of our districts do it in spreadsheets. But understanding truly what parts are being used. I’m going to fix them. So one of the biggest repairs that we see are those headphone jacks breaking off in the actual devices themselves. For a technician who has done this a few times, that’s a five-minute fix. It’s no real effort or time. That’s an easy fix. If I am having a bunch of devices with hardware issues like the keyboard’s just breaking, the screen no longer being touchscreen, those are mainly replacement fixes.
And so if I’m buying, for a while there was one specific Chromebook that would explode. It was a real fun one. Those are replacements and maybe we avoid that type of device again. And so when we think about, to bring it all back to thinking about that long five year plan, we’re talking not only your model end of lives and your projected refreshes, but we’re talking those repair costs, so that time and money spent on parts, and fixing them and then looking analytically, what are the trends? So, in September, am I having to replace more and what are those replacements looking like? Are there training opportunities that we can do there so we’re avoiding having to budget for this again? What does that look like? And then there’s also systems, and most SIS systems have this where they can forecast enrollment numbers based on your largest and your smallest schools and class sizes.
So how do we forecast what the enrollment is going to be in five years, knowing that I’m losing or I’m gaining students? And then further, you can look and see what the trends in technology are going to be. So right now, those Promethean smart boards are everywhere and that is the trend. Everyone wants to buy them. What is coming up that is going to be the next trend? And how do I budget to stay on trend with this? Because COVID changed the way we teach and we learn. So now as I look at where we’re going, how do I stay connected to the world outside so that I’m not stuck in these four walls with technology?
RYAN: Part of budgeting involves not just looking ahead at what we need, but also, especially when we’re trying to make a case, looking back and saying, “Hey, we have been wise stewards of the finances we’ve been given in the past, we’ve taken care of our devices, we can show you where they are and that they are being used.” So how does a Tech department make the case to Finance not only for money in the future, but to say, “Look, what you gave us last year or five years ago, we have really been faithful with in terms of how we’re using those dollars”?
ANNAMARIA: Oftentimes, Technology already has that information kind of at their fingertips without knowing it. They know what they purchased over the last year. They’re issuing devices and collecting devices almost daily, depending on how rough and tough the students are being with them, right? And so, for example, I might purchase, just speaking whole numbers, 20,000 devices. In those 20,000 devices, 18,000 of those have now been issued out to students and staff members. And then I have 2,000 across all of my schools that will be used for loaner devices or maybe even for parts, depending on if we had some break that we can’t send back to the vendor and fix. Now I have new keys for the keyboard when they inevitably pop out. Or I have a new screen that I can potentially use if it’s not shattered already. And so that’s also another way to show, not only do we have this wonderful graveyard of devices that we can’t use, but we’re reusing these pieces for them, so their death is not in vain. I can continue to use these Chromebook parts for as long as we have the same type of Chromebooks on site.
So although it looks like they might not have been used correctly, or we have some issues with them, Technology really can have a case of, “The majority of our devices are being used in one way or another, whether it is for learning or it is to ensure that learning doesn’t stop.” That’s important.
And often our districts are looking at them. Technology knows this stuff. They have to because they’re also looking at their technicians saying, “What are you doing every day? How are we working on these devices? What devices are working for us? How are we using these? Have we had any lemons?” And then showing Finance, “Look, we’re tracking this daily. And if you ever want to see more, we have it. We have these analytics already here for you to utilize and we’re tracking them. We know. We are always being good stewards,” and our Technology departments really are, because they know that they might not get funding again like this. And so they are really keeping track of all these different pieces from the get and making sure that our students oftentimes are held responsible for that breakage as well, whether that’s through a technology fee or having obligations against them if something does break, and have acceptable use policies that they have to sign upon issuance, that they can often have fees and fines against.
And if they can’t, because the school is majority Title I, there are other ways that they work through that with parents and students to ensure that those pieces do come back.
RYAN: That’s great. I didn’t tell you that I was going to ask this, so I’m putting you on the spot a little bit, but I think it’s a worthwhile question for anyone listening. We’re talking about budgeting, working with Finance. What is the single biggest easy win, looking for that low hanging fruit, that they could do right now, this year, to set themselves up better in the coming year? Is there one thing that rises to the top of your mind?
ANNAMARIA: I’m laughing because every district that works with me probably knows exactly what I’m going to say here, because I harp on it in every conversation that I have. Have a good inventory, whether you do it yourself or you have a third party come in that knows best practices. Have a good inventory. If you don’t know what you have and you don’t know how it’s being used, how do you expect anyone to take you seriously when you’re doing budgeting, when you’re asking for more money? And how does it make you feel good to know that we might not have enough for somebody, or we might have over and we’ve now not used funds that we could use other places? So have a good inventory. That good baseline inventory is going to set you up for success in a hundred different places within the Technology department and ensure Finance that what they’re giving you is being used effectively.
RYAN: This is all super helpful stuff, AnnaMaria. Thanks for speaking with me today and I know that you will join me in wishing all the best to everyone listening who is about to start making all these important budgeting decisions.
ANNAMARIA: Yeah, it’s a stressful time, and then right as we finish budgetings, federal and states are starting their audits, so it continues the stress for our school districts, and I know that every school wants to be successful, and this is step one, having that communication together and working as a team, and then step two, really knowing what you have and how is it being used.
RYAN: Field Trip is a podcast from Frontline Education, the leading provider of school administrative software. That includes Inventory and Help Desk Management, with tools to help you keep track of all of your devices and other assets, manage support tickets, access robust reporting, make better financial decisions, and more.
Learn more at FrontlineEducation. com. If you enjoyed this episode, be sure to subscribe. You can find it anywhere you listen to podcasts. For Frontline Education, I’m Ryan Estes. Thanks for listening, and have a great day.