In just about every school in the United States, a student can sit in front of a computer and connect to staggering amounts of information and resources. Technology is the engine that has propelled education across the bridge to the 21st century.
The impetus for adding millions of personal computers to classrooms in the 1990s and connecting them to the Internet has focused on student performance and educational outcomes. But many of the same technological advances that have provided students new avenues to knowledge also offer schools and universities ways to streamline their business operations and manage their facilities more efficiently.
Computers and other technological advancements can help schools run their lighting, heating and cooling systems more efficiently; manage budgets more precisely; buy equipment and supplies more cheaply and quickly; and keep better track of inventory, work requests and other mountains of information for which administrators are responsible.
"Technology is dramatically changing the way we operate - not only in the classroom but in the business office," says Ted Davis, superintendent of the Nevada (Mo.) School District.
By increasing their own technology budgets and taking advantage of federal programs such as the e-rate, school districts have dramatically increased the presence of computers in their buildings.
Schools' connections to the Internet are becoming more sophisticated - 63 percent of schools have a dedicated line such as a T1 or T3 line, and 23 percent have connections such as cable modems, wireless links or ISDN lines. Only 14 percent of schools relied on a dial-up connection.
The main beneficiaries of the technology infusion are students and teachers, but in many cases, administrators and facilities managers have access to it as well. And many of them are taking advantage of it to improve their operations.
The average public school building in the United States is more than 40 years old, and many of those facilities are plagued by aging and inefficient systems.
Newer systems that take advantage of the latest technology allow schools to slash their energy costs. Many schools and universities have entered into energy-management performance contracts with companies that provide modern, more efficient equipment upfront and recoup their expenditure through the savings the schools realize.
The Nevada School District expects that the performance contract it signed in 1999 will save $6 million in energy costs over 10 years. Among the improvements, says Davis, are computer-controlled systems that manage heating, cooling and lighting more efficiently.
"It gives us greater control over our operations," says Davis.
Technological innovations such as thermal energy storage can help districts control energy costs more efficiently. Several buildings in the Kenosha (Wis.) Unified School District use thermal ice-storage systems to provide heating and cooling, says Patrick Finnemore, the district's facilities coordinator.
The system produces cooling at night when a utility has cheaper off-peak rates. The cooling is stored for use during the day instead of generating power when the rates are higher.
"With utility deregulation, it's becoming very popular as a way to manage electricity consumption," says Finnemore.
The technology structure that schools install to provide curriculum and instruction also can benefit district operations. Finnemore hopes to be able to run his energy-management systems over Kenosha's wide-area network.
"It will allow us to draw comparisons between schools, so we can use energy more wisely," says Finnemore. "We would be able to keep better track of energy consumption at various times of the day."
Making sure school buildings remain in decent condition keeps thousands of custodians and other maintenance personnel busy throughout the year. Computerized maintenance-management software (CMMS) is an increasingly common way for schools to keep track of all the jobs a work crew performs.
"It allows us to manage all the work requests from around the district," says Finnemore. "It tracks when the work gets done, how many hours are spent on a job, how much is spent on materials."
CMMS systems like the one Kenosha uses are stand-alone software packages. More recent systems can be integrated with other programs. Finnemore says Kenosha hopes to upgrade its maintenance-management software as part of the district's overall upgrade of its business software.
"We want to be able to integrate our CMMS with our business information system," says Finnemore. "That way, we will be able to link our work with a purchase order."
Finnemore also wants to upgrade the CMMS program so it can be used to schedule jobs and estimate how long they will take and how much they will cost.
Database software has given schools quick access to information that previously might have been buried in a forgotten file cabinet.
"We can track all of the project needs and can quickly provide that information to people," says Finnemore. "We can sort the information on any of 30 different fields. It has made our lives easier."
Easy access to objective information with standardized priorities makes it less likely that projects will be chosen based on pressure or lobbying from parents or staff members.
Even the smallest schools routinely have moved most of their operations to computer.
"All of the business office - records, payroll, accounting, the whole gamut - is on computer," says Dianne Kleist, business manager for the 460-student Malcolm (Neb.) School District.
The next step for many school administrations is to move to software that integrates all the various business functions into a compatible package, so that data can be transferred smoothly from one department to another.
As technology improves and software programs become more specific, schools will find increasing opportunities to improve their operations. In Malcolm, the school's food-service operation uses menu-planning software to make sure students' meals are nutritionally balanced.
In Nevada, Davis can use online forms from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to test budget assumptions and immediately assess the effect of various spending proposals.
"You can run through 50 different scenarios in five minutes," says Davis.
And many schools are tentatively dipping their toes into the largely uncharted waters of e-commerce and online procurement.
"We are doing some online ordering," says Kleist. "It's an extremely efficient way to do it."
Even schools that aren't ready to dive into online purchasing believe that it's only a matter of time.
"At this point we can't quite overcome the accounting practices required to manage the system," says Robert Manning, administrator for operations at the 1,200-student Ayer (Mass.) School District. "But it's coming."
Internet entrepreneurs salivate at the idea of grabbing a chunk of the billions of dollars that schools spend each year on supplies and equipment. Numerous dot-com startups have set up shop in the last couple of years to entice administrators to move their purchasing operations online.
The companies say that schools using their websites to bid on and purchase items can acquire supplies at better prices more quickly with less paper shuffling and fewer bureaucratic hurdles.
That argument made sense to the Missouri School Boards' Association (MSBA), which already provided a variety of services to the state's school districts. So it decided to create an online system to help schools buy supplies and equipment over the Internet.
"We know we have saved several districts a lot of money," says Bob Putnam, manager of the service, called the Missouri Purchasing Resource Center.
About 200 districts use the center. What can they get?
"You name it: paper products, custodial supplies, technology all over the place - wiring, routers, computers. We even can buy natural gas," says Putnam.
Because so many districts participate, schools buying through the center receive volume discounts.
The center's website offers a searchable collection of catalogs with more than 40,000 items from more than 100 vendors. Schools can create purchase orders online, but at this point, most do not complete the purchase electronically.
"We have very little electronic purchasing," says Putnam. "That proved to be too much of a paradigm shift for a lot of districts. A lot of districts still need or want a paper trail to send to their purchasing offices."
Putnam says he is "gently nudging" schools to go all the way to electronic purchasing. A few years ago, the MSBA launched an earlier version of the center "and it failed miserably," says Putnam. "Nobody had the software to pay the bills electronically."
Another reason for the earlier failure was that the center had no track record. "It was hard to get volume discounts because it was hard to predict what kind of volume there was going to be," says Putnam.
To overcome that obstacle, the MSBA teamed with the Cooperating School Districts (CSD) of Greater St. Louis, a purchasing cooperative of more than 40 districts that was formed in 1928. "The CSD gave us history," says Putnam.
Schools that don't have computer access or the comfort level to shop online can place orders through the center via fax, phone or mail.
But as computer technology has saturated the nation's schools, even the smallest and most remote school systems can take advantage of the Internet's resources. Those are the ones Missouri's cooperative is targeting.
"There are a lot of rural districts in the state of Missouri that need our help," says Putnam. "That's why we're in this. Nobody wants to call on them or give them discounts."
For more information on the center, visit its website at www.moprc.org.
When Baylor University in Waco, Texas, needed to upgrade the aging energy systems in many of the buildings on its campus, it believed it could cut a sizeable piece off its utility bills.
After putting an energy-management system in place in 70 campus buildings, the improvements have slashed the university's utility bills by more than $1.5 million a year - about a third of the school's energy bill, says Ken Simons, Baylor's associate vice president and business manager.
In addition to installing new chillers and upgrading Baylor's cogeneration system, the improvements included technology that allows facilities managers to monitor and control conditions more closely in the various campus buildings.
"You can adjust settings in all the buildings from a central location," says Simons. "You can schedule the HVAC systems to go on or off at certain times. The lights are computerized to go on and off at certain times in certain locations.
Technological improvements don't have to involve intricate computer software to result in benefits for a school, notes Simons.
"The most obvious step to take is lighting retrofits," says Simons. "Changing to electronic ballasts and T8 fixtures will save a considerable amount of kilowatt hours."
The energy upgrades at Baylor included the replacement of 50,000 fluorescent light fixtures with energy-efficient lighting systems such as T8s.