Steven Karlin, the deputy superintendent of the Garden City, Kan., school system, has turned down offers of tickets to professional basketball games from technology companies trying to sell him a product. He also regularly gives away cookies, computer mouse pads, and other items that vendors often send as freebies to potential buyers.
But Karlin, who oversees the 7,400-student district’s information-technology division, is seriously considering an offer from a technology company the district already uses to foot the bill for lodging and expenses at a spring conference. Karlin believes that by attending the conference, he’ll accomplish the goal of gathering the latest technology information from national experts without spending school money that would be better spent on instruction.
School technology has been big business in the education world for years. American school districts spend about $6 billion annually on technology, according to Denver-based Quality Education Data Inc., an education marketing and research company. Technology companies that want a cut of those dollars are often willing to spend money wining and dining those who make the decisions about which products to buy.
But technology directors frequently find themselves on their own as they make decisions about what free offerings to accept from vendors and what to reject. In some cases, as with cash-strapped districts, giveaways from companies can mean the difference between employees’ receiving technology training or not. Some offers can also cause ethical quandaries for school technology officials and other administrators who find themselves in situations that may not be black or white.
“If a company is providing scholarships to a conference, and you’re in a district that has very limited funding, that’s a real dilemma for some people,” says Bob Moore, the executive director of information technology for the 20,000-student Blue Valley schools in Overland Park, Kan.
‘Favors Influence Decisions’
How school officials conduct themselves with technology companies is especially important in the area of public perception. If the public believes that officials are a little too cozy with a particular company, that can cause serious trouble, especially for administrators in high-profile positions.
The problem is that technology directors often find themselves relying on their own instincts and experiences—rather than well-crafted district policies—when it comes to what types of professional giveaways to accept from companies and what to decline.
Following are some tips on how to avoid ethical quandaries prompted by gifts and other benefits that educational technology vendors might offer.
1. Research your state’s laws regarding the acceptance of gifts by public employees. Determine whether those laws would apply to someone in your position.
2. Find out what your school district’s policy is on accepting gifts, travel reimbursement, meals, or other types of favors that vendors offer. There may be a monetary limit on what you can accept, or requirements for reporting such gifts.
3. Don’t accept giveaways offered by vendors, such as free tickets to a professional sports game, to avoid heading down a slippery ethical slope.
4. Educate vendors. Make sure they understand what your district’s policy is so they don’t offer goods or benefits you can’t accept. Tell them how you evaluate products.
5. Have a transparent procurement process that involves clear guidelines and regulations that map out how a product will be evaluated and chosen.
Some states have laws that districts must follow, along with their own policies, regarding the gifts school employees can accept, says Lisa E. Soronen, a senior staff attorney for the Alexandria, Va.-based National School Boards Association.
“There’s definitely a range of rules varying by state,” Soronen says. “The statutes vary far and wide.”
Some states and districts may require employees to keep close tabs on the value of a gift or meal from a vendor, and might have restrictions on how much an employee can accept from each vendor. In others, however, the restrictions may be very loose or poorly communicated to school officials.
Even in states and districts that have restrictions, experts say that doesn’t stop companies from using a variety of marketing tools to try to influence school technology buyers. Common practices among technology companies include paying for hotel accommodations and meals at conferences for school officials, paying conference registration fees, hosting dinners or flying school officials somewhere to see a particular product in action, and providing long-term “loaner” equipment schools can use to test products.
Phillip Harris, the executive director of the Bloomington, Ind.-based Association for Educational Communications and Technology, says favors do sway the decisions that technology purchasers make, even if just unconsciously.
“I believe that gifts and favors influence decisions, and obviously if the big businesses didn’t find it effective, they wouldn’t be doing it,” he says. “I interact with a lot of technology coordinators in public schools, and they’re constantly concerned with this issue.”
But sometimes vendors’ offerings aren’t as straightforward as a free dinner, Harris says. Companies may want to do a pilot project in a district and throw in additional hardware, software, and consulting. Or they’ll offer to take a district employee to a special site for training. It’s easy for districts, especially if financially pressed, to rationalize the benefit. “If I’m a tech director, all I have to do is say to myself, ‘This is a good product, and if I don’t do this, somebody else is going to. I might as well get it,’ ” Harris says.
Shari Sentlowitz, an education marketing manager for New York City-based Sony Corp. of America, which sells everything from projectors and cameras to security systems to schools, says her company has several methods of making products attractive to educators. They include a program that allows schools and districts to earn points toward new equipment with each purchase and special extended warranties.
Though Sony doesn’t often do outreach directly to school technology purchasers, Sony’s resellers do host receptions at conferences or hold seminars in which they’ll pay for travel and accommodations, Sentlowitz says.
Those types of events “give [school officials] an opportunity to actually hear and see new product technology,” she says.
‘The First Ethical Breach’
But Keith Hanak, the director of Secaucus, N.J.-based Panasonic Corp.’s systems integration, says the educators he deals with in today’s market aren’t interested in being wooed with freebies.
“They’re not typically comfortable with that,” Hanak says. “They don’t like taking meals or anything like that.”
That’s as it should be, says Harris of the Association for Educational Communications and Technology. “I have taken a position for myself that it’s much better for me to be absolute,” he says. “There’s no ‘This one won’t matter, or this one is OK.’ If I accept the first favor, I’ve accepted the first ethical breach.”
Roland E. Moore, the executive director of information technology for the 166,800-student Orange County, Fla., school system, based in Orlando, recalls how years ago his office accepted dinner invitations or offers of free accommodations at conferences from vendors. But his opinion about such practices has changed over time. “I think to some degree with many school districts, there is a bit of naiveté” in the beginning, he says. “We didn’t really undertand what the true impact was and now we’re more cognizant of it.”
Bob Moore, of Kansas’ Blue Valley schools, says that while he understands why some districts are tempted to take extras from vendors, he refuses to accept even a T-shirt. Beyond that personal approach, Moore says his district has a policy that requires him to report any gift of dollar value from a vendor totaling more than $500 per year.
“I think that technology decisionmakers need to apply an extremely high and rigorous standard when making those kinds of decisions,” he says. “It’s clear from observing the industry that I think some folks play pretty fast and loose with that. We’d be fools to think vendors aren’t trying to influence us when sometimes millions of dollars are on the table.”
School technology purchasers mulling such choices should make sure to run the scenario by a colleague and a superior to see if it passes the test of “reasonableness,” Bob Moore says.
Soronen of the NSBA likewise says IT directors and others being wooed by vendors should not be making such decisions alone. Rather, she says, policies should be in place to guide people to make good judgments.
“It’s not a decision one person should make in the context of their own thinking,” she says. “Think about how things look. If it’s unclear, I’d go to my supervisor and figure out what the standards are.”
‘Court of Public Opinion’
Karlin, of the Garden City schools in Kansas, says his district has guidelines on gifts from vendors, but some situations fall into a gray area. Consider, for example, if a vendor offers to pay for accommodations for district employees to travel to another district to see a product in actual use. “If the people attending were not involved in making a purchasing decision, we’d probably be more inclined to take advantage of it,” he says. “I’m going to maintain high ethics. I wouldn’t consider doing something if it would influence my decision.”
One way to combat potential problems is to educate vendors, Harris of the educational communications group says. “Our goal should be to model appropriate ethical behavior by explaining to vendors that if you send me a gift, I will have to exclude you from consideration,” he says. “Even though a district is struggling to get equipment, I still don’t think they should compromise.”
Josh Reibel, the president and chief operating officer for Wireless Generation, says his company does little to woo clients with gifts or favors, and keeps state and local regulations regarding gift-giving in mind to prevent putting technology directors in awkward positions.
“We are very much on the side of not getting into the gray area,” Reibel said.
To protect themselves, districts should make their purchasing processes as clear as possible, Bob Moore says. “If you do something like accept a scholarship to a conference from a software company, and now you’re going to be selecting among different software vendors,” he says, “you must have a very transparent process” so everyone involved can see that the rules were followed in choosing the company.
Though IT directors are not typically in the public eye, Soronen of the NSBA cautions that people are watching.
“You can’t discount the whole court-of-public-opinion issue,” she says. “People are really concerned about this type of thing, from Congress on down to the lowliest level.”
Michelle R. Davis is the senior writer for Education Week’s Digital Directions.
A version of this article appeared in the June 09, 2008 edition of Digital Directions as Total Cost to You...$0