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October 1, 1995
Vol. 53
No. 2

Selling a School Technology Budget

How do you convince a school board and electorate not to slash funding for high school technology? By turning to technology to graphically present your case.

The computers we already have are not used, so why should we ask the public to buy more? Such was the perception of some key administrators and district trustees when I became the director of educational services for New Jersey's Northern Highlands Regional High School District in 1994. The two affluent communities that form our school district have high expectations for the 750 students who attend Northern Highlands High School. Nevertheless, resistance to increased spending has been strong enough at times to bring down to defeat both the school budget and the board of education incumbent who supported it.
This time, the district faced a deficit for the next school year, and part of the remedy proposed was to cut the technology request. Several months later, however, the trustees rejected the suggestion and appropriated the full amount that my technology committee had recommended. The funds would enable us to expand our school's media center, pay for a new 25-station MS Windows lab, fully upgrade the CAD lab and other equipment, buy more science probes and graphing calculators, and add to our software library. In addition, the board called for a long-range “visionary” plan to create a state-of-the-art technology facility.
What accounted for this abrupt about-face on the budget? I'll explain.

Show Me

First, let me itemize some of the other impediments to our proposal. There is a state-imposed cap on annual school budget increases that has steadily reduced the increase permitted to a current low of 3.63 percent. There was a court decision requiring per pupil expenditures to be equalized among school districts in the state, causing state officials to reallocate aid from the wealthier districts to poorer ones.
Finally, as public officials frequently remind voters, New Jersey has the highest per pupil cost in the nation. Consequently, members of local boards of education are more sensitive to voters' sentiments, meaning administrators must come up with hard evidence of needs. And that's exactly what we did—graphically demonstrate schoolwide technology use and needs.
Although some administrators and trustees believed the existing computers were underused, most teachers saw an opposite problem: a scarcity of appropriate equipment. In response to the teachers' assertions, the school board agreed to the formation of a technology committee, with a mandate to evaluate technology needs in all curriculum areas, develop a technology plan, and present its findings to a public meeting of the board.
The committee's charge, in other words, was to show that teachers and students used the equipment, and to persuade the trustees and the voters to commit more tax dollars to technology. I was appointed to head this committee.
The committee we formed was representative. It included two administrators and 15 teachers from every department and area—administration, pupil personnel services, and special education among them; as well as six students and two parents. Although the degree of computer sophistication varied widely among the adults, it was fairly uniform among the students: all six had excellent skills and a keen interest in technology.
Ultimately, we let the students give the lion's share of the presentation. We believed they would have the greatest impact on the board and on the public.

Making a Production Out of It

After evaluating our immediate and future needs, we developed recommendations for facilities planning, hardware, software, staff development, and other support services for teachers.
Next, the teachers on our committee worked with the TV production teacher to arrange to have students in these courses videotape computer and other activities. Our student members then worked with the school's technology coordinator and student computer club to merge the materials into a multi-media presentation. We presented it to school board members using a large screen monitor linked to a computer.
Our presentation showed not only how teachers and students use educational technology throughout the curriculum, but also the actual power of the technology. We had videotaped students in the writing center using word processing to revise essays that had been critiqued in their English classes; students in the media center compiling social studies research projects by accessing databases; math students using graphing calculators to solve calculus problems; and science students measuring and graphing motion by using probes connected to computers. (In the science computer lab, different types of computers were mounted on carts and wheeled to science classrooms, where students used them along with probes and other instrumentation to complete laboratory lessons.) We also showed science teachers using computers to present simulations of certain scientific concepts and principles.
Our videotape also featured foreign language students who, engaged by interactive software, talked to computers; and advanced music students applying synthesizer and computer technology to the study of music theory (they heard the original musical compositions resulting from these activities). Some students shown used the power of CAD in the technical drawing classes, and others developed nutrition profiles in health classes. Even in the nursery school program, operated under the aegis of the home economics department, toddlers played educational games on the computer. Also captured on our videotape were the students in the TV production class as they actually put this video together.
The students who presented the video to the school board explained how they had used scanner technology and desktop publishing to produce the pamphlet in the new Mac room. And to reinforce the videotape, they presented an illustrated document that captured some of what had been shown. The book was produced by photography students who photographed the activities that were being videotaped. Members of the school's computer club and their faculty adviser added appropriate text.

System Overload

Just as the teachers had originally maintained, we discovered that the real problem was indeed too few computers capable of handling current software applications. True, in the newly created Macintosh lab, the 20 networked computers were powerful enough to handle multimedia technology. And the new equipment installed in the library was beginning to transform it into a true media center, with databases and source material on CD-ROM drives, as well as connections to telecommunication networks and online service providers.
But in the two outdated network labs where the required computer literacy course was taught, the computers could handle only DOS applications, which did not require large amounts of RAM. Moreover, the aged IBM computers did not have hard drives and could not be upgraded in a cost-effective way. The labs were using 14 out of a possible 16 periods each day to teach the computer literacy course. The writing center had only four machines capable of running MS Windows applications, and often more students sought to use the computers for word processing or desktop publishing than there were stations available. In mathematics, the problem was the inability of the computers in the math lab to run much of the current software.
It was obvious as well that the quality and the extent of computer use varied widely within and across disciplines. The teachers on the committee felt strongly that more of their colleagues would use technology if they believed it would enhance student learning. They said that the revision of the computer literacy course would be crucial to increasing the use of technology in the curriculum because students needed to learn the fundamentals of multimedia technology, desktop publishing, and telecommunications, in addition to word processing, spreadsheets, and database management.
For their part, the students on the committee suggested that a student CHIPS (as in microchips) squad be formed to help advance the use of technology at the school. After some training, squad members would be ready to help maintain and upgrade the equipment, correct minor malfunctions, and serve as technical classroom aides. They also offered to help teachers review software or learn some other computer-related tasks. The school did offer teachers mini-courses on word processing, but the teachers expressed a need for more varied and advanced courses for multimedia applications. They suggested that we catalogue the computer talents of our staff in the hope that others could volunteer to help teachers learn.
The shortage of appropriate equipment and the lack of an ongoing staff development program in technology were compounded by the absence of both an integrated approach and a long-range technology plan. Ordinarily, computer purchases were not based on any central focus or design; only on what the general school or department budget could support.

Strength in Numbers

As for the parents on the technology committee, they endorsed what the teachers and the students recommended. They also expressed their pleasure at being included in the process.
In sum, by bringing together the different stakeholders of the school's community to study the technology issue, we established a forum for new ideas. Our powerful synergy was nourished by the open exchanges among us and our communication with our respective constituencies. Our process gave us credibility. And we developed a mutual respect that annealed into a strong educational and political force.

Ralph S. Musco has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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