Smart Practices from FAST: Financial Management and Technology Solutions

Districts are exploring ways to incorporate technology to transform traditional educational delivery methods into more efficient and effective tools for academic success.

Financial management and technological upgrades have been used by many districts to achieve savings. In the 2011-12 school year, debt service payments cost Texas school districts more than $5.8 billion, accounting for 11 percent of all expenditures.

* Enrollment is approximate.

Financial Management

All school districts are obligated to practice sound fiscal stewardship, including financial reporting, accounting, data management, asset management and risk assessment. Some have realized significant savings by refinancing their bond debt, while others have increased revenue by aggressively seeking grants.

District County Enrollment* Smart Practice Savings
Cypress-Fairbanks Harris 100,500 Uses a Campus Improvement Planning process to help administrators make informed spending decisions. Has contracted with consultants to study efficiency opportunities, staffing patterns and practices, etc. Allowed the district to cut $13 million from its budget through service cuts and staff attrition.
Katy Harris 56,200 Continuously monitors the interest rates of the bonds it sells, refinancing when possible to achieve lower interest rates and save money. $24.8 million saved through bond refinancing since 2006
Northside Bexar 88,200 Has an active debt management program intended to reduce the financial impact of bond issues on taxpayers by watching market conditions and continually refinancing bond debt at lower interest rates. In addition, the district does not sell all of its bonds at one time and instead waits until the money is needed for projects. $40 million annually
Round Rock Williamson 41,500 Has pursued and received grants to purchase library materials and computer hardware; district library staff also has conducted a variety of fundraisers. For 2009-10 school year, library grants totaled about $25,000; fundraisers brought in $230,000
Spring Branch Harris 32,300 Accelerated bond program projects to take advantage of lower building and borrowing costs. $15 million

Technological Upgrades

Technological upgrades to existing equipment, while requiring upfront costs, can pay off in long-term savings. Districts have found savings by sharing large IT investments and by installing cost-efficient systems such as virtual servers and VoIP communication.

District County Enrollment* Smart Practice Savings
Cedar Hill Dallas 8,100 Cedar Hill ISD and the city of Cedar Hill split the cost of a shared network infrastructure, including telephone, Internet and an in-ground fiber-optic network. The district and the city also share a data center. $610,000
Bexar 88,200 Acquired a Voiceover IP (VoIP) telephone system that has allowed the district to put telephones in more than 5,500 classrooms while realizing a significant savings on monthly billings. $300,000 annually
Pearland Brazoria 18,700 Virtualization of district computer systems. District is moving away from desktop computers to computers that access software and storage on centralized servers. Watch $3 million one-time savings, plus on-going savings related to lower utility, software, and hardware costs.
Spring Branch Harris 32,300 Has shifted to a virtual server environment, consolidating 200 physical servers into 10 virtual servers. It uses blade server technology to host the virtual servers, and has consolidated database servers into a clustered environment. In addition, the district has adopted a new backup architecture to improve data security. $200,000 annually plus a one-time savings of $100,000 from database server consolidation
Veribest Tom Green 300 Has installed “thin client” technology that allows one server to accommodate up to 30 computers in a classroom. The server performs most of the actual computing, including programs, file storage and Internet access, allowing client machines to use less energy and last longer. One-time savings of $93,000 from purchasing client machines vs. conventional desktop computers. $55,200 annually in utility and maintenance savings.

View sources.

Shared Business Services

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With the assistance of Regional Education Service Centers (ESC) throughout the state, Texas school districts can have high-quality business services through shared service arrangements. For example, the Region 17 Education Service Center (ESC), which serves 57 primarily rural public school districts and three charter operators in 20 counties surrounding Lubbock, operates a cooperative that provides three levels of business services:

  • Level 1 services are intended for districts that have an experienced business services staff. This level provides technical assistance and training in various areas of school finance and business services, including workshops on state aid and school funding formulas; assistance with TEA finance reports; and up to eight hours annually of assistance with bank depository contracts and compliance with state regulations and state and federal maintenance-of-effort requirements. The ESC estimates that its member districts each save $7,000 annually by using it rather than an independent contractor.
  • Level 2 services are intended to replace or enhance existing district business staff. It includes training in school finance and business services as well as unlimited consultation in the areas of payroll, state and federal grants, budgeting and financial accounting and reporting, as well as banking support as needed.
  • Level 3 services are intended to perform services in place of a district business office staff. Service options include payroll services, accounts payable and check processing, financial accounting, budget preparation, PEIMS preparation, bank reconciliation a nd other services as negotiated. The ESC estimates that a district using all of these services would be able to operate without a full-time business manager. Districts receive $45,000 in services for $25,000, a savings of $20,000 a year.

The superintendent of one participating district stated that they could not replace the quality of service they receive from the ESC.

Other ESCs also provide high-quality business services.

Source: Region 17 Education Service Center

Free Software

Most office desktop computers are used primarily for e-mail and the creation and review of work-related documents such as reports, memos, spreadsheets and presentations. These routine functions entail obvious ongoing costs. Most organizations maintain their own e-mail systems, including servers and software, as well as software for documents, typically Microsoft Office.

Many organizations have begun looking for alternatives to these systems that can save money. Google Apps, for example, is an online software package that can replace both Office and internal e-mail systems – and it is free for schools, colleges and universities.

Several major organizations have already adopted such online solutions. Wyoming, for instance, is moving 10,000 state employees to Google Apps. Five states (New York, Colorado, Oregon, Iowa and Maryland) now offer access to Google Apps for their K-12 students, as do a few Texas school districts including Conroe and Spring Branch.

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) plans to pilot the use of Google Docs, the document software within Google Apps, by the end of calendar 2010.

Sources: “Wyoming to Move State Employees to Google Apps,” Government Technology (October 27, 2010); “I’m in a Google Apps State of Mind,” Official Google Enterprise Blog, October 5, 2010; and Rick Goldgar, chief technology officer, Texas Education Agency.