Discover what smart strategies, solutions and practices you can be implementing to prepare your IT infrastructure for the inevitable technological changes coming to your campus.
For years, Texas Education Agency finance staff have spent over 80 hours a month manually updating the state funding system that distributes money to school districts.
In Texas, school districts receive funding for everything from electricity to books through a fairly complex series of formulas. Those formulas are based on hundreds of variables, including the kind of transportation districts provide and how many students show up on a daily basis, said Rick Goldgar, chief technology officer and deputy CIO.
This critical Foundation School Program System distributes $20 billion a year. But until the agency started building a new application for it, the finance staff had to gather data and get it into the system manually. And most of the systems that held this data were not integrated.
"We were actually trying to run a $20 billion distribution system on an old mainframe that was using technology that was essentially developed back in the 1970s," said Lisa Dawn-Fisher, director of school finance. "And it was way past time to come into some more modern technology."
Along with the technology aspect, the state auditor's office found that the system didn't have sufficient audit control. In 2006, the state Legislature mandated that the agency update its system so it would run on current technology, cut back on manual processes and be more cost-effective.
Last summer, the Division of State Funding and the Information Technology Services division finished a nearly three-year project to write a new application for the system. And on Sept. 1, the agency won a Digital Education Achievement Award from the Center for Digital Education for its efforts.
The new system integrates 18 subsystems. And because of that integrated system, the agency saved more than $200,000 annually on maintenance. That's a 46 percent savings.
Payment processing time has been cut by more than 95 percent, which saves $70,000 a year and nearly 1,100 staff hours. And most data processes are now automated.
In one month, project manager Connie Fannon had multiple components of the system under development at the same time, said Martha Reesing, Project Management Office director. She might have four to five teams working on different components that had to be integrated, tested and rolled out.
"It really required a lot of coordination and timing and having all the staff involved, both technical and functional, ready and available to do their part in order to stay on track with the project schedule and move things forward," Reesing said.
The finance staff worked with the technical staff daily to collaborate on the project. And at one point, developers sat in the same cube with the finance staff to help foster that collaboration, Dawn-Fisher said. They had to learn to speak each other's language since one side spoke technical and the other spoke financial lingo.
During the process, the team faced some technical, funding and legislative challenges. The developers wrote the new system with Microsoft .NET and C#, and the system uses an Oracle database structure. That structure was new for Fannon's team, so they needed to learn how to use it. And they also started using Cognos for reporting.
Now they're working on integrating SAS programs so they can move the school finance calculations from a somewhat manual to automatic process.
"We've learned a tremendous amount, and that's helping the team look at more and more options to close the gap on the technical side of things," Fannon said.
On the funding side, Texas has a two-year budget cycle because the state Legislature meets every two years. When the agency started the project in 2006, it changed its school finance system that same month, and since then, the Legislature has changed its mandates three times.
"I think we've done a really good job of scrambling after a session to hurry and try to figure out how to make the modifications," Dawn-Fisher said, "but it has been a moving target so to speak, and I think that's one of the challenges that we've faced."
"That's also one of the reasons that we picked some of the architecture we picked," Goldgar added, "just to try to make it such that when changes occur, it doesn't involve a complete re-write of the application."
You may use or reference this story with attribution and a link to