Kentucky’s largest school district is embroiled in a flap with state education officials over who should pay to finish wiring its schools. At issue is whether the state should pay for wiring costs that officials say could have been covered by eRate discounts, had the district only applied for them sooner.

The Jefferson County school district, which encompasses 150 schools and includes the city of Louisville, has asked the state for $1.25 million to help connect its remaining 48 schools to the internet.

But according to a state official, the district could have taken advantage of at least $2.5 million in eRate discounts to pay for internet connections during the program’s first two years, and now the district wants the state to cover the loss.

“Do you reward them? We pushed the other 175 [Kentucky districts] to do this,” David Couch, an associate commissioner of the state Department of Education, told the Associated Press (AP).

Kentucky’s funding formula for wiring its schools factored in the eRate discounts that each school was eligible for and instructed schools to apply for these discounts.

“We encouraged every school district to apply [for eRate monies]. In fact, they had to apply, it was part of the [state’s] funding formula,” said Phil Coleman, director of school network services for the Kentucky Department of Education.

Couch told AP that Kentucky was uniquely positioned to jump at eRate discounts in 1998 because it already met a federal requirement to have state and district master plans for technology.

The eRate subsidy that Jefferson County was eligible for averaged 78 percent the first year and 68 percent in the second, according to Couch. Jefferson County “should have jumped on [the] eRate” in the first two years, he said, when there was enough funding in the program to wire all of its schools.

“I think someone needs to answer: Why didn’t you take advantage of this?” Couch said.

Alan Whitworth, director of information technology for the district, said Jefferson County did not apply for all of its schools to be wired in the program’s first two years, because not all of its schools were ready. Many buildings lacked sufficient electrical power, he said.

Also, some schools chose not to apply. “That was their call,” Whitworth added. The district invited all its schools to apply if they wanted internet connectivity, but only schools that expressed interest and were best prepared to integrate the technology were wired first.

“Why would I network a … school if they aren’t going to use [the internet]—if they haven’t got a plan to integrate it into the curriculum?” Whitworth said. “Our boss [Superintendent Stephen Daeschner] is very kid- and instructional-oriented. He said if we’re going to spend a lot of money doing this, we have to make it count.”

Eligibility for the eRate is based in part on the proportion of low-income students. But even the most affluent district in Kentucky received discounts in the program’s first two years, because there was so little competition for the money, Couch said. Now, other states have caught up.

Currently, the eRate—funded at $2.25 billion—is oversubscribed, meaning many applications will go unfulfilled. Jefferson County has applied for funding to wire its remaining schools, but the widespread demand for discounts means it’s unlikely the district will see any more money from the program for its wiring project.

Whitworth said his district has racked up eRate savings of more than $8.1 million so far and has been approved for nearly $600,000 more. He acknowledged asking the state for about $1.25 million, but he insisted the district had made a “good faith effort” to first get a subsidy for that amount.

“If a district did not take advantage of [the] eRate, we don’t give them the difference because it isn’t there,” Coleman said. “We just don’t have money sitting, waiting in case someone did not take advantage of the eRate.”

On June 5, Couch told a Kentucky Board of Education committee that nearly a third of Jefferson County’s schools—48 of 150—are not yet wired. Nor did the district establish eMail accounts that permit teachers to receive, and instantly respond to, messages from Education Commissioner Gene Wilhoit, Couch said.

Why not? “I’m trying to say this kindly. It’s just not been a priority,” Couch said.

Whitworth conceded the district is “a little behind” but not as backward as the state department seemed to imply.

“They said it wasn’t a priority. I respectfully disagree. If you look where the funds came from, you can tell it was a priority,” Whitworth said. The district began wiring its schools in 1997, a $34 million project that was funded primarily with local money, eRate discounts, and state funds from the Kentucky Educational Technology System (KETS) program.

“The state said if we think you are making a ‘good faith’ effort, we will give you some funds. Now they’re saying we didn’t make a ‘good faith’ effort, and we’re confused,” Whitworth said.

The 102 schools wired to date do have internet access, though not always at the classroom level, Whitworth said. The rest are in the process of becoming wired.

On June 6, the full state board decided to seek a meeting with Jefferson County school officials. “I’m not interested in castigating people at this point,” board Chair Helen Mountjoy said. “But I am interested in students in Jefferson County having opportunities to learn that are available to other students.”

Links:

Kentucky Department of Education
http://www.kde.state.ky.us

Jefferson County Public Schools
http://www.jefferson.k12.ky.us