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« Is sentimentality killing libraries? | Main | Strategies for stretching your tech budget »

Getting the most from your tech dollar 1: effective budgeting

Over the next few days, I'll be addressing some strategies school districts use to get the most from their technology dollars. See the full list here. Any budget stretching strategies you're willing to share?

1. Use effective budgeting techniques

Zero-sum describes a situation in which a participant's gain or loss is exactly balanced by the losses or gains of the other participant(s). Wikipedia 


Finance in schools is a zero-sum game. Districts have a finite amount of money, so any funds expended on technology are funds not spent to reduce class sizes, to buy science lab equipment, or to train teachers. Good technology budgets should be not just practical, but moral as well, clearly showing how every dollar spent is improving educational opportunities for students, either directly or indirectly. Period.

A good technology budget* has some common elements:

Alignment to goals. Budgets ought to be a sub-set of a larger technology plan which in turn is tied directly to district and building goals. Technology budgets that support general educational goals have a wide range of support. Technology in itself does not increase student learning; technology can only support the practices shown to increase student achievement. Technology goals not directly related to larger educational goals are meaningless.

Many technology efforts cannot be completed in a single year. Established long-range goals help provide continuity of budgeting efforts. My experience is that long-term projects (installing LCD projectors in all classrooms, upgrading all wireless access points, etc.) are less vulnerable to cuts since district-wide equity issues come into play.

Transparency. My tech department's budget is available district-wide in a GoogleDocs spreadsheet. Arranged by major categories and account codes, each purchase order is listed with its vendor, dollar amount and brief description of item or service purchased. The beginning balance of each account is listed and a running balance is shown. The data is always as current as possible.

Transparency also depends on the budgeter using language that is understandable to educators and the general public. If "firewall support agreement" with a hefty cost after it is listed in the budget, the budget maker has an obligation to be able to explain what a firewall does and why it is important to the great unwashed.

Specificity. I do zero-based budgeting every year. This means starting from scratch and itemizing every technology expense that needs to be met in the coming school year. Every expense. The advantage of specificity is that should the budget need to be reduced, the consequences will be readily obvious (longer replacement cycle, dropping a service or subscription, fewer printer cartridges, etc.).

Stakeholder input. A technology advisory committee is a great help for the technology budget-maker. My advisory committees have given me terrific ideas, huge challenges, and timely warnings over the years.

An advisory committee is one way of giving ownership of the technology program to a body of stakeholders in the building or district. If the goals, the budget, the assessments, the long-range plan are known to be important to more than just a single person, they will carry more weight. And if your advisory group includes parents, community members and students, it will be a very important body indeed.

A good advisory committee will also insist on some kind of budget assessment that helps answer the question "Did expending funds in this way have the result that was anticipated?" Of course any technology initiative should have an assessment component that helps educators determine whether an expenditure was wise. 

A well-thought out budget will improve the use of technology in a district even it is not fully-funded. By relating expenditures to goals, by being able to prioritize purchases, and by having stakeholder input, money will not just be well-spent, but best-spent.

* All budgets should have these elements, but given it's mysterious and costly nature,  they are especially important in technology budgets.


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Reader Comments (4)

Love the Google spreadsheet idea. This is a great idea.Cuts a lot of bureaucratic run around.

May 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDeb Hall

Shared budget responsibility with an advisory group, while I would think it would be kind of painstaking, is a good idea. It's not just your decision never really is though. Transparency is great. I just worry about a right-wing staff member doing screen shots and posting it on a Tea Party blog. Probably need to get over that...

May 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNathan Mielke

Some of the best advice I ever received as a technology teacher was to always have a wishlist. Somehow at the end of the year there always seems to be some found money (not in my budget :), but it has to be spent in 24 hours. I keep a list of items that I collect throughout the year, including links to websites and item numbers for purchasing (some of my colleagues keep P.O.s already filled out and ready). This way I know that I am spending the money on actual wants and needs, rather than what can be bought fast and is off the top of someone's head.

May 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBethany Smith

Hi Deb,

I learned as a librarian that anyone with discretionary time or discretionary funds is always viewed with suspicion by classroom teachers. Better to be completely open.


Hi Nathan,

Transparency also demands that one can defend one's expenditures. The Tea Party can have at me anytime it choose. Not that being rational would help.


Hi Bethany,

That end of the year money that needs to be expended is known as "budget dust." And yes, it seems every principal winds up with a little and smart librarians and tech people know just how to help spend it!

Great advice,


May 22, 2011 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

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