Tip #1: Plan now for calculating Year 3 discount levels

Now is a good time to start thinking about optimizing your discount levels for Year 3 of the eRate. Remember that discount levels are based on each school’s percentage of students who are eligible for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program–not the percentage of students who actually participate in the program, which tends to be lower, particularly among middle or high schools.

The problem faced by many applicants is that only these lower participation figures are readily available or can be documented. Depending on the difference between eligibility and participation, a school might have to apply at a 10 to 20 percent lower discount rate than it qualifies for.

This is the time of year when many schools send surveys to parents seeking lunch program data. You can use this opportunity to gather accurate, supportable data that reflects program eligibility rather than participation, so your discount level will be the maximum allowed under program rules.

Carefully review the wording of such surveys. Stress to parents that accurate information about their level of income is critical. The surveys should make it clear to parents that they should report their income levels even if their children don’t intend to participate in the lunch program. Since data is typically collected by family, this is also the time to record eligibility data on all siblings as well.

Applicants who properly use eligibility data for the calculation of their discount level should recognize that SLD staff have access only to nationwide data on reduced-price lunch participation. This may generate requests during the Form 471 application review process for additional documentation, such as a copy of the survey that you used or a compilation of your survey results. In most cases, though, the higher discount rates you will enjoy are well worth the extra care needed to collect and document eligibility data.

Tip #2: Simplify your telephone bills

Based on a review of school district telephone bills compiled from applicants’ first-year BEAR Forms, there are a number of steps that districts could take to improve their telephone billing. These steps could reduce the number of checks that need to be written, make it easier to file future BEAR Forms, and–in some cases–help you avoid miscellaneous phone charges:

  1. Consolidate your bills as much as possible. Many schools are receiving multiple bills, often with different billing dates, for individual line items or groups of lines. Unless this is being done for control purposes, multiple bills just make payments (and filling out BEAR forms for reimbursement) more difficult. Multiple bills also are less likely to be reviewed properly each month and more likely to incur late charges. The solution is to ask your local telephone company to consolidate a number of bills into one summary bill (or perhaps into three; one for basic telephone service, one for data lines, and one for pay phones).

  2. Be careful of long distance billing arrangements that involve a minimum monthly amount on individual phone lines not normally used for toll calls. The minimum charge may only be $6 to $7 per month, but the dollars can add up. The solution is to block toll calls on these lines or negotiate a district-wide long distance contract. Consolidating long distance billing under one carrier also makes managing eRate discounts easier.

  3. Pay attention to miscellaneous long distance charges that might appear on your local phone bills, particularly from no-name companies. These charges can be for “dial-around” calls (of the 10-10-XXX variety), collect or third party calls, 900-number calls, or simply fraudulent charges (a practice known as “cramming”). At best, these calls often are priced at a 10 to 20 cent per minute premium to regular long distance service; at worst, they can represent unauthorized charges billed at dollars per minute.

    From an eRate standpoint, most of these charges are ineligible for discount. The best defense against such charges is to block 900-number calls in your telephone switch and/or take advantage of call and billing restriction options offered by your local telephone company. When calls need to be made by travelling teachers or administrators, pre-paid calling cards often can be used as an effective substitute for collect and third-party calls. With a little advanced planning, eRate eligible pre-paid cards may even be used.

  4. Take a careful look at monthly charges for pay phones. Many schools are paying telephone rates on the order of $50 per month per phone. Even worse, these charges are not eRate eligible. The pay phone industry is now quite competitive. There are a number of competitors who will provide service at lower rates (though you might want to check the rates charged to the pay phone users) or may even pay the school for the privilege of providing service. At minimum, schools and libraries using local telephone company pay phone services should call and ask for a lower rate.

  5. Consider an audit of your entire telephone service to make sure that all billed services are indeed being provided. From an eRate standpoint in particular, it’s not considered good form to apply for discounts on services you’re not actually using. Typically, specialized firms do these audits on a fully contingent basis for a share of any retroactive credits generated.

    (Thanks to eRate Central, a web site sponsored by the New York State Education Department, for these tips.)