Town and Schools Continue Tech Department Merger

December 14, 2023
• The Town and the Needham Public Schools have been engaged in an experimental merging of information technology departments. One year in, they met to check in on how it’s going.

Needham’s IT workforce has been undergoing a reboot of its own. Last year, the departure of two of the town’s high-level IT employees signaled the start of a trial, combining their own department with the school’s. The collaboration seeks to test the waters for a single technology division, combining infrastructure for a more efficient, cost-effective model. At a special joint meeting on Dec. 5, the Select Board checked in with the School Committee for a progress report on the merger.

In order to study the relationship, the town hired a consulting firm, Plante Moran, to audit both departments, analyze their assigned tasks and poll how town and school employees viewed their effectiveness. Over the course of the summer, they collected data by meeting with stakeholders, conducting surveys and reviewing the information provided by both the town and schools. In their report, they concluded that the current structure would need some work in order to achieve the town’s goals, but that the concept held merit.

Overall, the challenge of meeting the town’s technology needs currently falls upon 18 individuals. As separate entities, six of those employees are allocated to town needs, while 13 of them are dedicated to the schools. These individuals are not only responsible for traditional tech support, but are also being asked to manage extra reporting functions and the technical aspects of building security, human resources and financial tasks. Servicing 1,550 employees and users, the staffing is below industry benchmarks.

Due to the small size of the departments, there were some common shortfalls that are being felt. Technology deficiencies, understaffing and lack of training were frustrations shared by both school and town workers. A piecemeal approach to hardware and software implementation was also expressed. Additionally, Plante Moran saw the need for an increased emphasis on internet security.

“It’s something that continues to evolve, and something we have to address on a continual basis,” Marvin Sauer explained during the presentation. “It’s not something that you are ever done with.”

There are many possible solutions the town can explore. Outsourcing some of the current functions being handled by the IT departments may provide some cost-effective relief for time-consuming tasks that are not core to their function. Plante Moran also suggested a department model unified under a chief technology officer, potentially reporting to Superintendent of Schools Dan Gutekanst.

While maintaining the same size, many positions would be redefined in scope and serve either the town, the schools or both. A new position would be created and dedicated to cybersecurity. Guidance for the new technology structure would be provided by a steering committee, which would be comprised of as many of the affected departments as feasible.

“This is an initial recommended organizational structure,” Sauer said. “We have a lot of additional opportunities for improvement, and we think you should reassess staffing six months, a year down the road as recommendations have been implemented.”

The proposal was warmly received by both boards, although the school department is approaching it with a little more caution, as many of the existing staff could find itself tasked with new responsibilities and priorities spread across a wider territory.

“I take away from this that we can do this. I guess I’m still looking for the reasons why we should,” School Committee member Alisa Skatrud said. “I sit on the school side. We have a great leader, and we’re closer to fully staffed, and so my job on the School Committee is to make sure that we are delivering the best services to the students.”

“I’ve kind of been the burr in the side about this, because I like what we’re doing and I want to be left alone,” Gutekanst joked. “I do think there is opportunity for collaboration with the town. There are opportunities for efficiencies, to gain efficiencies in service and programming. We didn’t talk about it, but the whole area of security and cybersecurity is something that we really need to pay attention to.”

Attracting and keeping qualified candidates for the IT department on a town budget was also a concern.

“We are having difficulty recruiting for positions that are not as high a level as the chief technology officer,” Finance Committee member Carol Smith-Fachetti said. “Will it be more difficult to attract that individual? Will some very talented person use this as a jumping off point for becoming a chief technology officer in a for-profit enterprise?”

Both departments took comfort in the fact that, while a combined structure is new to Needham, it is a model that has been successfully adopted elsewhere. In the end, the experiment continues, the town and schools working toward the new unified structure slowly while logistics are being worked out.

“The employees that we are talking about are under different union structures,” Select Board Chair Marianne Cooley said. “So, in fact, today they are not able to [change], even if one person’s skills could be useful in another area.”

“This is not something that is going to happen right away,” Gutekanst said. “First of all, I think there’s a cost, and by the way, the cost for the next couple of years is in excess of a million dollars to make this happen. Some of those are one-time costs, some of them are ongoing costs, and there may be others.”

School budget presentations began at Tuesday’s School Committee meeting, and while no additional consulting, security or staffing costs were envisioned for that budget, some Town Meeting articles may be forthcoming.

“We still have to figure that part out, but that certainly could be, would be a part what we propose in the near-term,” Gutekanst said.

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