Districts look to business for telecommunications funds

If you’ve had enough of waiting for those long-promised eRate funds to support your schools’ internet services, then consider bolstering your fund raising efforts with some self-generated revenues. That’s what officials at the Lawrence (N.Y.) Public Schools decided to do. Rather than getting in line, Lawrence is taking the bull by the horns: the district is running its own internet service business . . . and reaping profits.

Working in cooperation with WinStar for Education (formerly Community School Networks), Lawrence went into the internet business, developing and marketing its own internet service, called Lawrence Online.

According to Elliott Levine, director of communications for Lawrence and founder of Lawrence Online, the small business helped the 4,000 student district side-step the slow-moving line for federal discounts for eRate funds—”which we may never see,” Levine said.

In its three years, he said, the project has saved Lawrence more than $50,000 in internet access charges. The network project won the district an Excellence in Education award and a $15,000 grant from Bell Atlantic.

Levine estimates that the district has the potential to save more than $20,000 per year. In addition, staff members hope to generate revenue for additional technology equipment and services purchases.

Sound business

The reason for its success? Sound business strategies, said Levine, who admits that when the project began he was a technology “novice.”

“On paper the idea for the program seemed wonderful, but the most important step for us was to stop thinking solely as educators and start thinking as business people,” said Levine.

While WinStar for Education manages the business end of the operations, such as the servers, technical support, billing, and customer service, the district had to tackle marketing the internet service and promoting its continued use, Levine said.

In addition to a percentage of the revenues, which offset the costs for internet service, the district received technical support and training from WinStar for Education to begin the process of teaching its new subscribers, nearly all of whom were novices to the web before this project.

That spring, the district began marketing dial-up internet service to community residents, employees and local businesses. By the time service became available, Lawrence had accumulated more than 200 subscribers.

Lawrence Online also began providing internet service to a few neighboring public and private schools. Levine gained support for the program by recruiting students who worked as interns, developing portions of the district web site, and distributing promotional materials to local businesses.

The district’s most successful marketing effort, said Levine, was an “internet bootcamp,” where for six weeks during the summer of 1996, Lawrence offered new subscribers free hands-on training sessions where they learned everything from eMail to advanced web searching.

“We had no idea how this simple service would help us generate and maintain a large number of loyal subscribers,” said Levine.

Recognizing that ongoing advertising would be essential for further growth, the district formed another partnership with a community newspaper chain in 1997. In exchange for advertising that reached over 100 thousand homes, the district helped Richner Communications develop a weekly online newspaper. High school students involved with Lawrence Online were hired as paid interns, helping to publish the weekly editions while expanding their professional portfolios for college.

Lawrence has developed online applications for WinStar and is currently building a model alumni online center for public school systems. “Most importantly, we have had a strong viewership on our district’s web site since its inception,” added Mr. Levine, “enabling us to better communicate with our extended community.”

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