Final Frontier

Final Frontier

by / May 26, 2005
IT consolidation -- once verboten -- has nearly hit ho-hum status.

"Oh, another state is consolidating IT across executive branch agencies? Please. Tell me something interesting."

OK ... how about Sarasota County, Fla., turning over the IT helm of the Sarasota County School District to the county CIO? The county and the school district quietly have consolidated IT functions of both branches of government, and school board IT staff report to county CIO Bob Hanson.

It's probably the last frontier, and observers wonder why it took so long for the consolidation wave to wash over these shores. One reason could be the seeming difference between a city, a county and a school district.

The former mind the details of a community -- streets, parks, water, solid waste and a host of related services needed by residents. Schools take care of less tangible stuff -- opening minds, encouraging curiosity, reading, 'riting and 'rithmetic, and other functions associated with teaching children.

Another reason could be the cliquey nature cultivated by school districts over the years. It's no secret those in the halls of academe, even at the K-12 level, consider themselves a breed apart from regular government folk.

Whatever the cause of the divide between municipal government and school boards, the time is right for a sensible approach to consolidating IT between them. What Sarasota County did might not work so well in a huge jurisdiction such as Los Angeles, but why not other counties in the nation?

The United States is home to 94,112 elementary and secondary schools and 14,559 regular public school districts, according to the Department of Education. So there's no shortage of opportunity for municipal governments and school boards to explore consolidation.

Imagine the cost savings if cities and counties seriously courted school districts. Both enterprises crunch numbers. Both use telephones and the Internet. Both need hardware. Software could be a tad trickier for some applications, but the back-end stuff is practically identical.

Government institutions like to think they're different from each other -- so specialized that there can't possibly be common ground from which to consolidate. But when North Dakota's executive branch and the North Dakota University System (NDUS) first considered a joint rollout of an ERP system, they discovered enough in common to make it work.

The last four universities to go live with financial and human-resource software did so this past January. Getting to this stage took three years, and it wasn't easy. Both sides admit to a potential problem -- deciding to upgrade to the next version. The state wants to upgrade pronto. The NDUS, though mindful of the state's reasons, isn't ready to move so fast.

At the post-secondary level, 611 public institutions across the United States offer bachelor's or master's degree programs, according to the Department of Education's latest data. Again, there's no shortage of opportunity for states to open consolidation talks with higher education.

Consolidating technology is easy. Consolidating decision-making isn't. That's the final frontier.
Shane Peterson Associate Editor