As school districts across the country begin to make major budget cuts, technology directors face the same old challenge: how do we fight for ourselves when most people don’t understand what we do?
“Technology people have the desire, in many cases, to be neither seen nor heard,” said Allen Miedema, executive director for technology of Northshore School District. “They like sort of being in the basements of buildings, and that’s a bad place to be, because people will forget you’re there, and they won’t know what you do.”
Advocating for your department and your budget means communicating simply and strategically, something that isn’t always the engineer’s strength. We talked to four experienced CIOs and tech leaders who have weathered past budget cuts, asking what advice they’d give their past selves. They mentioned everything from vendor relationships to practicing explaining the technical details to the least-technical person you know.
Above all, they said, is effective communication. If you can’t explain the importance of what you do in a way people understand, you’ll always be on the chopping block.
1. Put the focus on the classroom experience — what does this do?
“It’s not about the stuff or the workload, and we often get stuck in that. We’ll say, ‘Here’s the stuff we need,’ instead of talking about what it means to the kids in the classroom,” said Joe Morelock, superintendent of Newberg Public Schools.
He brought up the example of SSOs.
“They might say, ‘Why are you spending x per year per kid?’ because they don’t understand the point of it; they don’t even know what a single-sign on is,” he said. “But what they do understand is how much time is lost when a teacher is trying to make sure every single second-grade kid is logged into the app — they’re losing all that instructional time on something that is not relevant.”
This, he said, is the key to effectively communicating about technology to a non-technical crowd.
“We have to think of ways to tell the story of the tool or service we’re providing as ways to give time to teachers and kids to do the learning. We installed Google Voice because it was a technical solution, but it was more than that — it was giving teachers, kids and parents the ability to connect with each other safely.”
2. Become a fluent translator for tech
“People think of tech as either it works, or it doesn’t, so very binary decisions get made about it,” said Leslie Golden, the president of Instill Security and IT director at Lines for Life.
“When directors of IT or technologists of any role work with leaders who are not technical, we are always up against learning how to be good translators,” she said. “Even if budgets are steady, it is very, very hard for IT to make themselves a priority unless things are failing. The ongoing care and feeding of technology isn’t treated the same way it is for students or the unions or test scores.”
Steve Langford, CIO for Beaverton School District, said that it’s important to describe, in detail, what will be lost to the individual.
“You need to be crystal-clear if you are going to reduce in an area that’s going to be a change in the service level to the organization,” he said.
That means explaining the individual experience, rather than what the system as a whole does — if you cut this person, we cannot support these programs or these sites.
Leslie suggested becoming comfortable with analogies and metaphor, then grounding your explanation in things your audience has seen and experienced, which helps effectively communicate risk.
For example: while most school board members don’t understand much about security architecture, they may have experienced a Zoom bombing in their meeting, and you can start with that example to explain other security threats. By tying your explanation to their experiences, they’re better able to absorb the importance.
“It’s playing that translator role. IT leaders should get comfortable with metaphor and realize that the politics of education are prominent drivers,” Leslie said. “If they don’t take seriously the idea of being strategic communicators, they will find themselves either not invited to the cabinet-level table or even excluded from it.”
3. Find your allies and advocates by explaining the role tech plays in their departments.
Leslie suggested practicing your translation skills on someone non-technical, ideally the head of another department, before you present to the group. Make sure they understand, and will tell you if you’re getting too technical, or talking about the wrong scope. Stay away from both the 35,000-foot and 35mm view.
“It’s really helpful to build a trusting relationship with someone at your level in another department,” Leslie said, adding that in the past few months, many departments have worked together in ways they never have before, and you should keep those doors and windows open as you go into the budget cut process.
“Being a team player, saying, ‘We’re going to make these informed decisions together, and here’s what that looks like,’ is incredibly successful. We say, ‘If we pull our two people from your staff, you’re not going to be able to run a help desk.’ Then, don’t be afraid of the righteousness of that. You’re not being rude, you’re helping them to make an informed decision.”
Because tech is so often invisible, Allen said, people don’t realize how much the cuts will hurt them.
“Find some allies and have the conversation — ’Hey, what’s the impact going to be in these if these different services get cut?’” he said. “I wouldn’t talk in terms of you doing me a favor, I’d talk about it in terms of the transportation routing system you rely on … I don’t want to go into a conversation where I’m the advocate for systems I don’t use. I want that department to be in front of that, and I’m supporting them. So if they’re going to talk about cutting this service, Bob from Transportation will raise his hand and say, ‘Wait!’”
He noted that, in the past, a huge amount of his budget was for licensing that only one department uses, and he has since successfully shifted ownership of both the budget and business relationship with the vendor to that department.
“I’ve moved costs to transportation, to food services, to HR when they are clearly the business owners of those systems,” he said. “So together we’re going to go to business services and make a case for an increase in your budget, not my budget. You’re going to manage more of the relationship with the vendor, and I’ll handle the technology part of it.”
Allies can be outside your organization, too.
“By developing relationships with your vendors or OETC and the purchasing co-ops, you’ll often find out you’re overpaying for services,” Allen said. “We did that with Microsoft for years, and Thomas (Richards, OETC’s executive director) was able to help us figure out where we could cut some stuff we’re not using. You can go back to your vendor and say, ‘Times are tough, I’ve got this budget and you guys are a big-ticket item for me. How can we reduce my invoice and still get service?’ That’s an easier conversation to have if you’ve already invested in building a relationship.”
4. With tech, a small amount of spending now can mean a great deal of savings later, so consider the whole
Communicate that tech is a department where spending can often mean saving, whether that’s being able to alleviate some of the pain of service cuts through automation or avoiding a huge hole down the road because you haven’t been maintaining your fleet.
“You have to think about your district’s core values, and what you’re trying to do every day,” Joe said. “Figure out what your must-haves versus nice-to-haves are, consider the long-term detriment to the cuts you’re considering, then try to select the things that have the least amount of long-term damage.”
Right now, Steve said, tech is front and center because of the closings.
“It would be very easy for me to pound the table and say, ‘You can’t cut tech at all,’” he said. “But if I did that, I’m not looking at the other needs of the organization. My responsibility, as the leadership, is to ask how we best make reductions while preserving the entire function of the system.”
And that goes within your department, too. He brought up the example of deciding that, say, network is the most important thing and can’t be touched.
“So then we put all our money into that, and we don’t have the money to maintain our SIS, which means we can’t do state reporting and don’t have the tools for teachers to take attendance, and then you don’t have that data and our entire school system is in jeopardy.”
5. Ask your team for ideas
Part of that balanced cutting comes from getting a lot of voices in the room.
“As soon as you’re comfortable being transparent with folks in your department, be transparent, because you need the collective intelligence of the group,” Allen said.
He notes that your team has ideas that you have not yet had.
“You get better thinking from the whole group, especially when you say, ‘Hey, we have to cut $100k, and if we can’t find it together, I’m going to have to find it on my own.’ People get really focused because nobody wants to lose staff, and you get some really great ideas.”
6. Take care of yourself.
Finally, Joe said, to fully meet this challenge, you have to take care of yourself.
“Reductions of this magnitude are emotionally taxing,” he said. “You are dealing with people’s livelihoods, you are possibly putting someone out of a job when they might find it very hard to get another one. Taking care of your own mental health — getting sleep, eating well, taking walks when you need them — you need those things, because you need to be very clear-headed about the choices you’re going to make.”