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Cash Back

Sometimes saving money doesn't mean cutting back. These three districts found that they could improve.

For many cash-strapped school districts, there may be no better news than finding a few ways to save money and stretch budgets. But the following examples are a sort of daily double. These districts have not only found ways to shave their costs, but they have also increased productivity. From buying used computers to replacing outdated copiers to learning how to efficiently manage heat use, here are three ways that three districts have been able to get more for their money.

Second-Hand, Not Second Rate

When Clark Smith became district technology coordinator at Jordan-Elbridge Central School District in February 2001, his mission was to solve a problem that had become a bit of an embarrassment. It seems everyone knew the 1,800-student rural district in central New York lagged behind in technology, but an article in a regional newspaper quantified just how far behind: 42nd out of 44 local districts when it came to computers per student and the percentage of computers with Internet access.

Board and administration support for increasing the number of networked computers in the district wasn't an issue; funding was.

"We went from 10 or 11 percent [of classrooms] with Internet access to 100 percent after one summer." -Clark Smith, Jordan-Elbridge Central School

But by that summer, Smith had come up with a solution. For less than $30,000 he purchased 170 refurbished Compaq computers from Toronto-based CDI Computer Dealers, a company that specializes in selling computers recently off-lease from corporations.

"We could have purchased 30 new machines for that much, but that really wasn't going to make a difference," Smith says. "This allowed us to put a computer in every single classroom. We went from 10 or 11 percent [of classrooms] with Internet access to 100 percent in one summer."

Before making the buy, the district examined all the negatives associated with buying used computers. "We didn't want to end up with doorstops," says district Superintendent Marilyn Dominick. "We made sure they were up-to-date and capable of running what we needed to run on them."

CDI's offerings came with a three-year warranty; but that's about as long as the district could expect them to last, versus five to six years for a new computer. Refurbished machines are slower than new models, but Clark required a minimum processor speed of 233 megahertz, ensuring that all could run Windows 2000 and Office 2000 programs.

The following summer, Jordan-Elbridge purchased an additional 194 computers from CDI that ranged in price and age, but averaged about $250 per machine.

"We're purchasing a little bit newer class of refurbished now, but we're probably saving well over two-thirds the cost of a new machine," he says.

This summer, all of the district's nearly 700 computers (up from 170 two years ago) were upgraded to Windows XP.

In addition to buying refurbished desktop computers, Clark also saves money on other tech purchases. The district licenses the software from Microsoft for about $50 per machine per year, a savings of about 50 percent over purchasing. Rather then spend $6,000 to $10,000 per new server; the district was able to buy used servers for about $400 each.

This isn't to say that Clark doesn't believe there's a place for new computers in education. His district has bought a handful of new machines in the last year, but plans to teach the latest version of AutoCAD on a refurbished machine.

"If you're teaching new high-end graphics program, then you might need a pretty powerful computer," he says. "But educational software really lags behind business software in the computing power it requires--Math Blaster and some of the other programs out there can still run on an ancient 486!"

--Rebecca Sausner

Fast-Forwarding To the Future

The faculty and administrators of Tyler (Texas) Independent School District knew all about Frankenstein, without having to read a word of Mary Shelley's novel. Call it the equipment monster: the 28 schools and four administrative offices all had copiers and printers of varying ages, with most of them from different vendors. Also, a central print shop had archaic presses. Often, it would take teachers weeks just to get a job turned around. Staffers grew so frustrated that they spent their own money at local copy shops just to have materials they could use. Then, they discovered the power of networking.

In September, Tyler's director of information management, John Orbaugh, talked to Xerox about a grand plan for the district. He asked the company what it would cost to take out all the old equipment, from the clunky laser printers to the offset printing press, and replace them with 125 digital copiers and multifunction devices. The answer was so compelling that Orbaugh decided to make the switch in December rather than wait for the summer.

"Why wait, when you can save money?" he asks. The district was spending about $530,000 per year to lease the old machines. The lease for Xerox's machines is $443,000. Although Orbaugh suspected there might be other costs saved with the change, he had no idea how happy he was about to make the accounting office.

By analyzing the district's energy use, Rapid City (S.D.) Area Schools saved $500,000 a year by running its heaters nearly 10 less hours a day. And the best part is-no teachers or students even noticed.

"It was like a rock being thrown into the water," he says. "Suddenly, we saw all kinds of savings, even in places we hadn't thought of." The district was able to eliminate several staff positions, both from the copy center and from the purchasing office. Because jobs could be turned around in a day rather than in weeks, the copy center staff didn't have to pull marathon weekend printing sessions or even stay late, virtually eliminating overtime costs. Also, since the copiers are digital, they can do scanning and printing as well as faxing. That means Tyler said goodbye to laser printer toner cartridges, pre-printed multi-page forms and fax toner.

More and more school districts are following Tyler's example, says Ernie Pozzobon, vice president of marketing for Xerox's office business group. To keep the education field humming along, Xerox employs former teachers to develop the kind of technology that has Tyler running smooth.

"The corporate market has very generic solutions," he says. "The education market, though, is unique. Because of funding issues, a lot of school districts don't have the resources for major initiatives. So, we all have to be creative."

Beyond being clever with the books, such networked technology has impressive non-financial benefits as well, Orbaugh says. "There's been a huge leap in our capabilities. Teachers can see where a class is struggling, and make a worksheet in that subject, then scan it in the copier. That scan goes to the print shop, which makes a batch of copies, and the teacher has it for class the next day. Ultimately, that kind of responsiveness has a big impact on student performance, and really, that's why we're all here."

--Elizabeth Millard

Turning On the Savings, by Turning Off the Juice

Talk about new math. After spending just $1,000 on data-logging equipment, the Rapid City, S.D., school district lowered its annual energy costs by nearly 25 percent, pocketing almost $500,000. That's according to district energy manager Ron Mincks, who circulated 10 data loggers--matchbook-sized electronic gadgets that measure and record temperature--among the district's 33 buildings. By using the loggers to document building temperatures, Mincks was able to determine optimum start/stop times for their heating systems.

"The only place we really save money [on heating] is in the off hours when the kids and teachers are not in school," says Mincks, who joined the district in 1997. Back then, the energy managers would shut down the heating systems around 8 p.m., then restart them again at 2 a.m. to keep the schools comfortably warm throughout the day.

After installing Onset Computer's HOBO data loggers, which can record and time-stamp the temperature and then download the results to a computer or a Palm handheld, Mincks made two crucial discoveries. First, by shutting down the heating system at 3 p.m. instead of 8 p.m., the school stayed warm for the rest of the day. Second, the system could be restarted as late as 6:30 a.m. and achieve a comfortable level by the time students and teachers arrived. That's 9.5 fewer hours of running the heaters per day, which represents not only a significant financial savings, but also an obvious ecological advantage.

And those aren't the only benefits, Mincks says. "When a teacher complains about classroom temperature, we can easily monitor it." As a result, "we've really increased student and teacher comfort just by documenting temperature." Mincks also uses the loggers in the district's coolers and freezers, where he can ensure that temperatures aren't too low "and things don't get over-frozen."

The idea of using data loggers in these ways isn't new (Mincks first deployed them in 1997), but only in the last five years has it really caught on in schools. So says Onset Computer President Mark McSherry, who credits the size and affordability of the HOBO products with their newfound popularity. "Prior to these there were chart recorders," he says. "They were mechanical devices that were bigger than two shoeboxes, and they'd draw out the temperature and humidity changes on paper. They weren't as reliable or accurate [as data loggers], and they were much more expensive." Plus, they couldn't output their data to computers, where it's much easier to analyze the results.

HOBO data loggers, like the kind used by the Rapid City district, sell for about $95 apiece. However, for energy managers who are also teachers, the company will provide a free logger as part of iScienceProject (, a K-12 program for students and teachers that offers science projects and contests. Teachers can obtain a HOBO free for two months with no strings attached, according to Rich Marvin, the program manager.

Whether a district saves $95 or $500,000, it's good news for administrators. "We have tight resources, we have strapped budgets," says Peter Wharton, superintendent of Rapid City Area Schools. "By realizing the savings in our energy costs, we can reallocate the funds to other programs. I encourage other districts to look seriously at programs like ours."

--Rick Broida