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Locking It Down, Cheaply

Balancing security needs with tight budgets

Trying to keep up with technology while managing limited funds can be a challenging trick for any company. For school districts, it can be even more daunting, as educators, students and parents clamor for computers and networks, and administrators have to find the money to meet the need. In the current economic climate, budgets are stretched so tight that districts have found themselves trying to be cost-conscious in technology spending by cutting staff, reducing tech training and doing limited network and systems implementations.

Although these techniques can be kinder to a bottom line in the short term, a complete slash-and-burn of IT resources may bring unpleasant long-term consequences. Beyond putting a district behind others in terms of technological prowess, limiting IT funds could even spark future litigation. Recent legislation, like the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, demands a level of information security that districts would be unwise to ignore.

The combination of low coffers and high technology needs means districts will have to be more creative in how they use their IT dollars.

Fortunately, with the number of hardware, software and consulting vendors in the industry, it's possible to stay secure and be wired without shelling out a fortune.

Outsourcing IT work, or partnering with neighboring school districts, can help reduce costs while providing your district with high quality work.

"Schools used to take the best technology and cobble it together," says Glenn Taylor, director of state and local government and academic programs at security company Symantec. "Today, you see districts moving toward implementing solutions that are more integrated and easier to use. This is important, because security is so critical, and yet resources are low. So, it's great to find a way to make the management of a security infrastructure much easier."

The first place for administrators to spend money is in antivirus and firewall tactics, Taylor says. There is a growing trend among school districts in getting these basic security requirements from all-in-one appliances that cover these basics as well as provide Internet and spam filtering. "Schools are having to do more with less, and using multi-function appliances like these can alleviate some of the strain on overworked IT staff," he adds.

Save Money By Being Creative

Once the fundamental security elements are in place, districts will most likely find that additional locks are needed to keep a network running smoothly. But with a limited number of staff members in the technology department, this can be tough. For some administrators, the answer to the problem comes in the form of one word: outsourcing.

Alden Gaw, executive director for network services at the Dallas Independent School District, says that tight budgets have led to using existing staff more effectively, and also bringing in outside help to augment the IT department's efforts. The district routinely hires technology consultants for short-term work on everything from networks to Oracle databases to Web application security.

"For us, it very effectively meets the majority of our needs," Gaw says. "Often, it's difficult for districts to justify a central staff population. The public wants to see the tax dollars wind up in classrooms, and to see administration increases raises a red flag for them." Using outside consultants is a way to keep the red flags from waving in Dallas, while allowing Gaw and his staff to implement multi-layered network security measures.

For schools that might lack the funding to bring in high-powered help, other creative ways abound to stretch technology resources while keeping networks bolted down. Neal Lawson, assistant superintendent for business at the Orono School District in Minnesota, says that they get help from TIES, a non-profit consortium of 37 districts in the state. Pooling resources with other schools not only makes sense for software and hardware purchases, since multi-user discounts can be used, but also lets Orono draw on expertise it can't afford to hire.

"Our finance system, HR system and student system are all run through TIES," says Lawson. "With a smaller district like ours, that works really well, because they can do the maintenance, operation and security."

Farming out the implementation and management of systems can be a boon for technology departments, and it can increase security as well, since outsourcers tend to have strong network controls in place. "Budgets are especially tight right now, and it gives districts an opportunity to look at how cooperation benefits them," says Tom Waknitz, director of technical services at TIES. It's good, in some ways, to have tight times, because people will investigate partnerships that will serve them well into the future."

Elizabeth Millard is a freelance writer based in St. Louis Park, Minn.