When Schools Should Consider Hiring an In-House IT Director

Considering hiring an in-house IT director? First, do the math.

As technology plays an increasingly central role in instruction, it’s tempting for school leaders to seek out an in-house IT director. Between student and staff device management, daily troubleshooting, and long-term technology planning, it’s easy to imagine the benefits of hiring a single individual to manage the school’s IT needs.

Indeed, no major urban school district has completely outsourced its IT support to third-party providers. And even charter schools, which often make extensive use of outsourced IT services, typically hire at least some internal IT staff once they’ve scaled.

But while the temptation to hire an in-house IT director is on the rise, doing so doesn’t make sense for every school. In fact, hiring an in-house IT director too early can needlessly increase a school’s technology costs, particularly for new schools or those with relatively low enrollments. It’s therefore important for school leaders to sit down, crunch the numbers, and make sure the math checks out.

First, determine your school’s existing IT costs.

First, school leaders need to get a handle on their existing costs. These typically come in three forms: labor, recurring IT services, and non-recurring project costs.

School IT Support Provider

“Labor” is straightforward. It includes the cost of paying all of the school’s existing IT staff and recurring vendors who support your school’s IT services. This team may consist of a single, part-time team member responsible for day-to-day troubleshooting or a group of individuals assigned to the school by a managed IT provider.

If “labor” is the “who,” recurring IT services are the “what.” Internet, SaaS subscriptions, including SIS systems, and Google and Microsoft platforms, among others, impact the school’s budget month after month. Schools may pay for these costs on a per-student basis, meaning that increases in their enrollment yield a corresponding increase in recurring IT service costs.

Non-recurring project costs are your school’s one-off IT expenses purchasing student and staff devices, classroom projectors, core IT infrastructures like routers and switches, and WiFi products all come at a steep price, not to mention additional charges for set-up and installation. When a school expands by opening a new site, these costs quickly add up.

While the exact mix of these costs—labor, recurring IT services, and non-recurring projects—may vary by organization, it’s recommended that schools devote a minimum of 50% of total IT dollars to non-labor categories. Suppose labor costs exceed 50% of the school’s IT budget. In that case, administrators will be hard-pressed to come up with the money to support necessary investments in high-quality internet services, equipment, and core IT infrastructure. If these costs exceed 50% of the school’s IT budget, year after year, the proportion of the school’s budget devoted to IT will need to increase to preserve the integrity of the school’s technology program.

It’s also important to remember that IT directors are expensive. For example, in New York City, a properly qualified IT director is expected to earn between $140-$175k per year, with a median salary just under $160k. Add a network administrator and desktop technician to the team, and the school is faced with an annual cost of $290-$375k in salaries alone, even without any third-party IT support. Given that labor shouldn’t exceed more than 50% of a school’s total IT spend, this suggests that schools with annual IT budgets below $600-$700k are ill-equipped to support a fully functioning in-house IT staff.

Your school’s enrollment may dictate the point at which it makes sense to hire an in-house IT director.

Enrollment considerations should also factor into school leaders’ decision-making. Operational IT costs generally fall in the ballpark of $100-150 per student annually. Assuming, first, that the salary ranges described above hold and, second, that per-student annual costs come in at $120 per student, schools that cater to at least 2,400 students may begin to see value from deploying an in-house IT department, substituting $288k of outsourced IT costs for $290k of in-house IT costs (at the lower end).

As a school’s enrollment approaches 2,000 students, preparations for hiring an in-house IT team begin to make financial sense. At this point, the school’s annual IT budget is likely approaching or has already surpassed $500,000 per year. As we’ve said, about half of this total should fund non-labor costs, including routine maintenance and equipment refreshes.

If a school’s enrollment is below 2,000 students, hiring an in-house IT director will likely come at the expense of its non-labor IT costs or yield an unnecessary—and perhaps permanent—growth in its IT expenditures above recommended levels. Also, keep in mind that hiring an in-house IT director won’t yield immediate savings. While a competent director will likely be able to reduce some costs within 12-18 months (and, more importantly, raise the quality of the school’s IT services), operational expenditures will likely remain static in the interim.

The math checks out, and hiring an in-house IT director makes sense for your school. Now what?

Let’s assume a school leader has crunched the numbers and decided to source and hire their school’s first in-house IT director. What happens next?

First, protect the new director’s time.

One vital benefit of having an in-house IT director is the added attention they can devote to the school’s internal systems, particularly its data and assessment platforms or SIS. Because of this added attention, the director is able to meet the needs of the school’s academic leadership team and oversee projects that both account for and are designed to enhance the school’s unique instructional model.

The easiest way to lose these and other benefits, however, is to assign the IT director to routine support duties that should be performed by lower-salaried IT staff. For investment in an in-house IT director to make sense, it’s vital that the school insulate them as much as possible from day-to-day IT support duties.

At a minimum, a proper in-house IT department should also include a network or server administrator and a desktop technician. If reliable vendors can meet the school’s needs, it might make sense to outsource these two roles, at least initially. While these individuals manage daily troubleshooting and one-off technical projects, the in-house IT director can devote time to strategic planning and high-level collaboration with the school’s academic leadership team.

Your school can’t afford to hire an in-house IT director, but you’re suffering from low-quality IT services. What gives?

As the above suggests, a middle ground exists between a school IT team comprised entirely of in-house technicians and one wholly staffed by an external provider. If hiring an in-house IT director makes sense for a school, the director can begin by first managing the school’s existing third-party vendors and move, later, to hiring full-time team members.

But what about schools with relatively small budgets and enrollments? What if they feel compelled to seek out an in-house IT director? That impulse likely points to one of several problems: the school may be experiencing inadequate troubleshooting, project support, or advisory services from its current IT provider. Alternatively, the provider may not be offering the school the full suite of technology supports it needs, such as educational data reporting and analysis services. In these cases, it probably makes sense to evaluate the school’s current provider and see if a change is necessary.

At CTS, we help schools solve their most pressing IT challenges.

CTS can offer a full suite of high-quality IT services at a fraction of the cost of hiring an in-house team for a school with budgetary or enrollment-related constraints.

Our managed IT service packages run the gamut from daily troubleshooting support and critical systems monitoring to comprehensive IT management, including instruction- and compliance-related data analysis and reporting services. Our “Essentials,” “Essential Plus,” and “Total Care” packages are intentionally designed to support schools at various levels of growth, ensuring that fiscal concerns don’t compromise the quality of the school’s IT programming.

Alternatively, suppose a school can afford to hire an in-house IT director but needs to hold off, for now, on additional in-house personnel. In that case, CTS can bridge the gap, supporting the new director with technical projects, daily troubleshooting, and advisory services that might later be fulfilled in-house.

Our team has worked with more than 60 schools across the United States to meet their unique IT needs. From schools just getting off the ground to established players looking to take their IT programming to the next level, our team has the technical know-how and deep understanding of the school and non-profit environment to serve a diverse range of partners.

School leaders have enough on their plates as it is. From instructional management, student safety, and compliance to finance food service and transportation, school leaders deserve a trusted IT partner who can ensure their school’s technology enhances their instructional programming. Let us take care of the technology so that you can focus on your school’s teachers and students.

Contact us today to learn more about our services and how we can help your school accomplish its unique mission.