Throughout the inaugural year of the eRate, we all have learned many lessons. Lessons on patience, politics, accuracy, technology, program administration, frustration, and, hopefully, the financial rewards for our efforts. The following are some practical lessons learned by some of Pennsylvania’s schools and libraries that can help guide you through the next application cycle.
• Attend workshops. Most state departments of education held free workshops for interested parties prior to the close of the application window. If your state doesn’t hold a workshop, call the Schools and Libraries Corp. (SLC) headquarters to ask if they will attend a workshop you plan, either in person or via conference call.
• Sign up for eRate information listservs and visit state eRate web sites frequently. Numerous states maintain eMail listserves for any interested parties to join. For a comprehensive list of eRate resources, as well as state eRate homepages, visit the Pennsylvania eRate web site at http://www.L2L.org.
• Don’t assume that vendors are informed. We found that schools often were receiving more and better information than the service provider community. Be sure your vendors are informed every step of the way and encourage them to sign up for listservs, attend workshops with you, and ask questions relevant to billing and start dates.
• Always submit your questions to the SLC via eMail or fax. In many cases, SLC answers were entirely inaccurate. At least with eMail or fax, you have a paper trail to back you up. If you don’t believe they have provided you with an accurate answer, double-check their response with a third party, or re-submit your question and ask that a supervisor respond.
• Be sure you also are complying with state and local competitive bidding requirements. You would hate to be near the end of the application window and realize that you didn’t post it in your local newspaper, etc., and therefore are in violation of state law. The eRate posting is not a replacement for existing state competitive bidding requirements.
•Obtain a well-completed Form 470 and Form 471 to assist you in filing your next set of forms. Many schools were asking for sample forms to guide them through the first year of the program, and we simply weren’t confident enough to make up and distribute sample forms, especially with so many changes and modifications taking place during the window. That won’t be the case this year. To obtain a Form 470, go to the SLC web site and peruse last year’s submissions. Because the Forms 471 weren’t online, you will have to ask another entity for a copy of theirs, or call your state department of education or library agency and ask them to forward a copy with the names deleted.
• Draft your service provider contract to include language on eRate billing compliance and “out clauses” due to funding shortage. If a service provider is unwilling to include this language in your contract, they probably aren’t “eRate friendly” and should be reconsidered as your service provider.
• Disaggregate your application as much as possible. SLC makes funding commitments not based on each application, but based on each line of the Services Ordered section. If you are the least worried that a component or service has an ineligible usage, put that item on a separate line, even if it’s not its own separate contract. If that line is considered ineligible, it won’t affect the other services you requested.
• If possible, have another person review your application before it’s submitted, preferably from another school or library. Different entities bring unique perspectives and often can spot errors that you may have missed.
• Stay in the window. Stay in the window. Stay in the window. It’s that simple. Don’t allow yourself to submit your Form 471 on the last day and take the chance of it getting lost or being rejected, leaving you no time to resubmit it.
• Send everything to the SLC via return receipt. Keep copies of everything you send, as well as copies of return receipts and fax confirmation sheets if you faxed something to the SLC and eMail or fax replies to questions you have posed to the Client Service Bureau. You may need the copies later if you have a dispute involving your application.
• Don’t accept rejections. Despite the fact that last year was the inaugural year for the program, there were an extraordinary number of rejections for invalid reasons. You have no idea if your reason is valid or not, so always resubmit your application within the window with the correction the SLC has requested. Then write an eloquent letter to the SLC stating the reason for the appeal and why you think your application should be reconsidered in the window. Be sure to include a copy of your application with your letter. Also, it wouldn’t hurt to send a copy to your state department of education and any elected official that could weigh in on your behalf.
• Realize from last year’s upheaval that the eRate is not a sure thing. Be careful not to rely too heavily on eRate funding for your technology projects. Instead, use it as a supplement source that can accelerate your planning. There are additional sources of technology funds, including many grants that state departments of education administer, that can assist your technology needs and are more reliable and predictable than the eRate.
• Above all, be persistent and patient. This program was the first of its kind ever administered and was bound to hit some obstacles. Hopefully, with the lessons we have all learned, the second year of the eRate will go much more smoothly.
John Bailey is the director of the Office of Educational Technology for the Pennsylvania Department of Education.