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Why a Maryland CIO Created a Forum to Connect K-12 Students

Broadband Leaders Series: Gary Davis, Chief Information Officer, Carroll County Schools, Maryland

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In addition to celebrating school districts nationwide, this year our blog will feature a new Broadband Leaders series. Over the coming months, we will showcase the people who make district upgrades possible, whether through their day-to-day work, cross-functional collaborations, policy, or other means. 
Meet Gary Davis. He is the chief information officer of Carroll County Schools in Maryland and leader of the Maryland K12 Technology Leadership Forum. Over the past two years, he has worked with state leaders, school districts, and service providers to advocate for K-12 technology funding and network upgrades. His work has been instrumental in securing the Internet access all Maryland students need for an equitable and quality education. We spoke with him about his motivation to start the Forum, and what the experience has been like so far. 

Tell us about your journey – how did you become CIO at Carroll County? What was your motivation?

I had been working on the provider side of education for the ACT, Inc. Educational Technology Center as an IT Director. At the time, my son was in the Special Education program in Carroll County and I was emailing directly with the superintendent to resolve an ongoing issue that I felt was not being adequately addressed. In that exchange, I made several suggestions on improving public education. He noticed my email signature and title and told me about a job opening in the school system. He challenged me to “put my money where my mouth” is, so to speak. I decided to apply and I have been here for over 16 years.

How and why did the Maryland K12 Technology Leadership Forum come to life?

I am deeply committed to collaboration at all levels. In 2004, we created the Carroll County Public Network (CCPN) consortium. This was a collaborative effort between Carroll County Public Schools, Carroll Community College, Carroll County Public Library, and Carroll County Government to build a county-wide 10GB backbone fiber-optic network, linked to the state NetworkMaryland network. The CCPN partners share resources including data center space. After seeing success from this collaborative model, I felt we could duplicate the concept at the K12 level statewide.
Because of the independent nature of the 24 school districts in Maryland… we decided to “put our money where our mouth is” and organize our own leadership group of all independent 24 District IT Departments. At its core, this is primarily a CIO/Director group but it includes the collaboration of our collective IT Departments and staff. We chose to name it the Technology Leadership Forum simply because leadership comes from all levels of our IT Departments. We work together where we can and do our best to support each other’s individual and collective efforts.

What have been the greatest challenges in connecting the remaining 30% of students in Maryland who lack high-speed connectivity in their classrooms?

Maryland is comprised of 24 individual school districts that are governed by local Boards of Education and dependent on the state and local county funding authority. Districts in Maryland do not have taxing authority. Maryland is also referred to as “America in Miniature” with drastically varied geography from the Atlantic Ocean to the Appalachian Mountains. It ranges from urban to rural. Each county-based school district has its own community, educational, and funding priorities. The state houses three districts with over 100,000 students including the 14th largest school district in the country at over 160,000 students. It also has five districts with under 5,000 students. Maryland districts have done a tremendous job of getting connected. However, for the reasons listed above, the remaining locations have been a challenge that has required creative approaches.

What has been the Forum’s greatest accomplishment so far?

The challenge is finding the right balance of independence and collaboration. As you can see, our districts are very different on so many levels. Each district may emphasize different technology priorities. The key is finding those aspects that we all have in common and focusing on cooperative efforts and solutions that make sense for all. At the base level, we all face the same technology challenges and have to deliver the same services. We are all confronted with limited resources to accomplish this work. Therefore, our biggest accomplishment is just having the forum to exchange ideas and help each other out. Each district has areas in which they excel and those that need more focus. At the same time, we are able to help districts that do have unique issues. In creating a unified approach to the top issues we face, we have raised the visibility of the IT perspective with a large number of key stakeholders.

Looking to the future – how do you hope to see the Forum grow?

Our goal is truly to make the forum more inclusive of our entire IT departments. Thus far, we have focused on the CIO/Director staff at a strategic level. We have had our staffs collaborate but we would like to formalize sub-groups to deal more at the tactical and operational level. As we did with the CCPN, the goal is to create a loose confederation of our 24 IT Departments. That is the key to striking the right balance between independence, collaboration, and cooperative efforts. As we produce positive and measurable outcomes, we hope it will raise our visibility as the K12 Enterprise IT authoritative source in Maryland.

Do you have any advice for CIOs, Technology Leaders, and Educators that are looking to organize an advocacy group in their own states?

The mantra of the CCPN, and now the Forum, has always been, “Check your ego at the door.” To me, that has been the key to the Forum’s success. Collaboration and cooperation create the economies of scale that will produce results. If you let your competitive nature and typical IT ego get in the way, you will lose out for the whole group and yourself — nothing benefits the individual more than a victory for the whole.
Finally, don’t take yourself too seriously. True leadership is not about the leader but about what the entire group accomplishes.
Stay tuned for the next installment in our Broadband Leaders series, and feel free to connect with us on social media to celebrate K-12 connectivity leaders in your state.

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