One requirement of the eRate program is to develop a technology plan for using discounted services to further your educational goals. The SLD—and Congress—want to ensure you have a long-term plan for using the discounts before any federal funds are committed.

Your technology plan must be approved by an authority designated by the SLD, usually your state department of education or state library, before you submit your Form 486 to receive discounts. You may also submit your plan directly to the SLD for its approval.

Your technology plan should meet the following criteria developed by the SLD:

(1) The plan must establish clear goals and a realistic strategy for using telecommunications and information technology to improve education or library services;

(2) It must include an assessment of the telecommunication services, hardware, software, and other services that will be needed to improve services;

(3) It must provide for a sufficient budget to acquire and maintain the hardware, software, professional development, and other services that will be needed to implement your plan;

(4) It must have a professional development strategy to ensure that staff know how to use these new technologies; and

(5) It must include an evaluation process that lets you monitor progress toward the specified goals and make mid-course corrections in response to new developments and opportunities that may arise.

Plan well into the future

Al Zeisler, president of Integrated Technology Education Group, recommends that you plan well into the future when budgeting for technology. For example, if you’re planning a wiring project this year, it’s a good idea to install twice as many data ports as you think you’re going to need. It’s much cheaper to install them up front than to reopen a wall and install them later, Zeisler pointed out.

“It costs about a thousand dollars each time you have to open a wall to put in new wiring,” he said. “The wire is the cheapest part of technology.”

When creating your technology plan, make sure you also allow for the “hidden cost” of making existing school and library buildings fully capable of supporting the technology. For example, about 40 percent of existing schools lack the necessary electrical systems to support advanced technology, Zeisler said.

You can save money by coordinating the installation of technology with new construction as much as possible. Improving technology and building infrastructure at the same time can save you about 5 percent of the overall cost of each, Zeisler said.

Other questions to consider, according to Zeisler:<

Have you “tested” your students’ ability to use the preferred technology systems in a way that maximizes their comfort and the learning process? There are significant ergonomic issues to consider. If a student can’t easily see a TV from the back of the room, gets neck aches from using a poorly-positioned computer monitor, may trip over improperly-positioned cables, or is distracted by the audio systems in use in the room, your investment will bring a poor return, dissatisfied parents, and poor educational results.

Have you budgeted enough for technology training? The U.S. Department of Education (ED) recommends devoting 30 percent of your technology budget to professional development. Only as we approach this goal will we be able to fully take advantage of what technology has to offer, according to ED.

Have you included a technology upgrade and replacement cycle as an ongoing cost component in your technology plan? The reality of technology is that it changes. If you don’t plan for upgrades in your initial technology program, you run the risk of incurring unnecessarily high costs for upgrading later, and local support for administration and school board decision-making may be challenged.

Reinvest savings into non-eligible technology services

According to Zeisler, the two most expensive components of any technology program are computers and construction. Together, the two most likely will comprise more than half your entire technology budget.

Throw in 30 percent of your budget for professional development, and it becomes clear that most of your budget is devoted to eRate-ineligible services. That’s why Charles Blaschke, president of Education Turnkey Systems Inc., a technology consulting firm, recommends that you funnel your savings and refund checks from the eRate back into your technology plan.

According to Blaschke, 17 or 18 states have adopted policies either requiring or recommending such a practice. Michigan, for example, has included a measure in its state technology plan requiring its schools and libraries to reinvest their eRate savings in other technology initiatives. Even if your state hasn’t adopted such a policy, it’s a good way to support technology initiatives that aren’t covered by the eRate, Blaschke said.

In an informal telephone poll of 25 of the nation’s largest school districts, Blaschke found that one-third planned to create a technology “trust fund” to use their eRate savings for other technology items. Another third planned to use the money they saved on telecommunications services to pay for internal wiring projects that wouldn’t be funded because of the change in funding priority.

“It’s important to note that you can use your refund money to purchase technology services beyond what is eligible for funding,” Blaschke said. For example, you can use your savings or refund check to pay for computers, technology training, tech support, building infrastructure, or anything else that isn’t eligible.

Because all eligible entities that apply are guaranteed funding for their telecommunications services and internet access under the FCC’s new rules of priority, you can calculate the savings you’ll realize from these areas and budget them into your technology plan to pay for ineligible services such as computers or training.

Best practice: Milwaukee Public Schools

Mark Root, manager of technology services for the Council of the Great City Schools, pointed to Milwaukee Public Schools as a model for other districts to follow when planning their technology infrastructure.

“We’ve seen one district that was pulling eight category-5 cables to each classroom,” Root said. “Milwaukee’s approach—pulling one fiber optic line to each classroom—allows the district to do more and also save money. It’s a more efficient, more cost-effective solution.”

Fiber optic cable consists of a bundle of glass or plastic threads, each of which is capable of transmitting analog or digital data. It allows for high-bandwidth transmission of voice, video, or data over the same communication lines.

Bob Nelson, director of technology for Milwaukee Public Schools, said the district is putting a 12-port hub at the end of each line. The hubs will serve as the connectivity point for voice, video, and data inside the classrooms.

“Doing [the wiring] once with fiber gives us one single transport, so it’s easier to maintain and has a better long-term cost,” Nelson said. “This will carry us for 10 years instead of having to go back and change [the infrastructure] every 18 months.”

The district took the initiative to establish a single communications standard for its 156 buildings and 5,000 classrooms so individual schools wouldn’t have to develop their own solutions, Nelson said. Milwaukee’s goal is to have all its secondary schools wired by Sept. 1999 and the rest before Sept. 2000.

The district’s schools qualify for an average discount of 80 percent, Nelson said, so Milwaukee is still waiting to hear the status of its 1998 eRate application. The district will use its savings from telecommunications services and from its funded schools to help pay for the wiring of its unfunded schools. The district also will apply for funding through Wisconsin’s TEACH program, which loans money to the state’s public schools for internal wiring projects, to pay the balance.