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Bankruptcy Launches School Cooperation

Despite a depleted school budget, vision and determination get Orange County schools hooked up to technology.

by / February 28, 1998
In 1994, as most school districts around the state and the nation were eagerly getting hooked up to the Internet, Orange County, Calif., declared bankruptcy.

Through investments in junk bonds, County Treasurer Robert Citron lost $1.7 billion of Orange County's $7.4 billion investment portfolio that year. And while Citron pled guilty to securities fraud and was sentenced to a year in jail, Orange County agencies struggled to find a way to do more with less. School districts, especially, were contemplating how they'd keep up with the times while everything in the county was grinding to a halt.

With $111 million erased from their budgets, the schools were suddenly struggling to provide even the most basic services to their 450,000 students. Yet the Orange County Department of Education (OCDE) felt technology was a vital component for a quality education. While neighboring counties were raving about the information their kids could get over the Internet, Orange County Superintendent of Schools John Dean was working to find a way for his schools to participate. "Dean was convinced that technology was one of the most important areas for us, and it would give us the most bang for our buck," said William G. Habermehl, OCDE associate superintendent. "He immediately set out to find a way we could get connected."

Despite the odds against him, Dean began visiting school districts to discuss connecting to the Internet. What he discovered was that each district was in a different position when it came to technology. Some districts already had Internet access, but they were paying up to five different Internet service providers (ISPs) to maintain their connectivity. Some schools had agonizingly slow download times. Other schools were using fiber-optic lines, while some used satellite or cable. Still others had no interest in bringing in any technology at all. "Basically, we didn't have any kind of overall plan," said Dean. "The system was evolving blindly." So, in 1996, he appointed Habermehl to help find a solution.

"The first thing we needed was a common vision," said Habermehl. "We needed something to shoot for, and we needed to do it cheaply."

Dean and Habermehl came up with a strategy that managed to bring together previously uncooperative school districts and proved that a vision can sometimes be as powerful as cash in the bank.

BUILDING A VISION

"It all started with us forming our vision," said Habermehl. "We had this idea that, if all 28 districts worked together instead of on their own, we could centralize our technology services. That would not only make technology easier for the schools to manage, it would allow us to leverage our buying power to obtain higher quality and lower prices from vendors."

Habermehl and Dean proposed managing all the school districts' connections through OCDE. In doing so, they could reduce to just one or two the number of ISPs servicing the county. Also, they could pool enough money to invest in a T1 line. "We knew we couldn't have kids just staring
at a screen, waiting for something
to download," said Habermehl. "We
wanted to see all the schools get fast connections."

"We wanted to at least bring the technology to the school doors," added Dean. "What they chose to do with it after that point was up to them."

Armed with their vision, Dean and Habermehl approached the school districts with their plan. They met with immediate resistance. The districts had a long history of noncooperation, and none of them had much interest in working together. Furthermore, many of them had a technology plan or were satisfied with the current situation. Nobody was interested in starting over from square one.

"At first it was challenging," said Habermehl. "Nobody understood why they should have to work together or share this resource."

To start winning the superintendents over, Dean launched the Superintendents' Technology Advisory Committee, which invited a few superintendents to help outline a technology vision for the county. "We wanted it to be their vision, too," said Habermehl. "We wanted them to feel we were doing this with them, not to them."

At first, things went slowly.
But after a few meetings, the superintendents decided they needed school district representatives, so they opened up the committee to every superintendent in the county. "That was a significant move in the right direction," said Dean. "They felt this was important enough that they didn't want to leave anyone out."

From then on, Dean and Habermehl worked on keeping the agendas simple. "By focusing on the big picture and a vision, it was easier to get people to buy in, because they could all find some piece of the pie that was worth their time and effort."

They also focused on allowing the superintendents to maintain their autonomy. Nothing in their discussions was mandated, and everything was open to discussion.

Finally, they made an effort to ask the right questions. "We asked, 'How do you want to improve staff development?' Then, 'How can technology help us do that?' That started to bring them in, because they liked the first question -- that's their turf," said Dean. Before long, many more Orange County superintendents were involved, and they began seeing the vision put forth by OCDE as their own.

BECOMING REALITY

Things are looking up in Orange County. Today, the school districts have almost 90 percent of their money back, and technology is being used more effectively and efficiently than ever thought possible.

"Once the districts started to see what power and leveraging we could get by forming an integrated countywide system, the resistance disappeared," said Dean.

Out of the 28 districts, 14 are now linked to OCDE for Internet access, according to George Gumbrecht, director of information services at OCDE. The Internet connections of those districts are also managed by OCDE, all the way down to a single computer, if necessary.

The power the districts generated by working together not only allowed them to reduce their ISPs from many to just a few at a better price, it also helped them obtain a super-fast T3 line from Pacific Bell. That means fast connections in every classroom.

In addition, all 28 district superintendents now have e-mail, up from only four before the effort got under way. "We can talk with them; they can talk with each other; and we can use the resources of one district in another," said Dean. "It's no longer necessary to send people from one end of the county to the other, which was time-demanding, expensive and frustrating in a county this large and congested."

CITIES PARTICIPATE

The project also had an unexpected benefit. It helped launch a project among the cities within Orange County. "While we were putting this together, I noticed the cities were struggling with many similar problems," said Habermehl. "We started thinking, why not leverage the power of the cities, too?"

Habermehl spoke to Dean about the idea, and the two invited city managers to a meeting where they discussed working together toward leveraging things like systems management, phone services and data warehousing. "With all of us working together, it would be a huge contract," said Dean. "Companies would bend over backwards to get it, and we would have everything to gain from that kind of competition."

Habermehl said a subcommittee of city managers is now looking into ways they can work together.

As for the schools, Dean and Habermehl said they will continue working together to link more schools with OCDE and make sure they have the technology they want at the prices they need. The two also want to maintain their technology vision for the county. "The mistake I see a lot of counties and districts make is they aren't developing a clear vision of where they want to go. That's why they get in trouble. They wait for the telecom providers to tell them what their options are rather than telling the providers what they want to do with the technology," said Habermehl. "But I think we've proved, if you develop a strong vision and stick to it, not even a bankruptcy can slow you down."

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