In an exclusive interview with eSchool News, the new eRate chief—who will oversee $2.25 billion in telecommunications discounts for schools and libraries each year—said he is committed to expediting the program’s application and notification process and already has taken steps toward that goal.

George McDonald officially was appointed vice president of the Universal Service Administrative Co. (USAC) Sept. 13, with overall responsibility for the agency’s Schools and Libraries Division (SLD). The SLD administers the federal eRate program.

McDonald replaces Kate Moore, who resigned May 30 to become a teacher for the Washington, D.C., public schools.

Moore, who was one of the founding members of the eRate, oversaw the day-to-day operations of the SLD, including the development of the SLD web site, the process by which eRate applications are reviewed, and the organization’s operating budget.

Under Moore’s leadership, which helped stabilize a program that was widely criticized by conservative members of Congress, the number of applications for the eRate has increased each year.

Now, McDonald is taking over operations at a time when eRate demand is at an all-time high. The total number of dollars requested in Year Four discounts were more than double the $2.25 billion available, and requests for Year Five will start pouring in soon.

“I’m making sure we address any areas of concern and taking care of those, so we can continue to move forward,” McDonald said. “Kate always made a point of it, and I will continue to improve customer service.”

McDonald has served as acting head of the SLD since Moore resigned, and he has worked as SLD’s director of operations since the agency was established, so he’s no stranger to the program.

In his interview with eSchool News, McDonald said the SLD just learned Sept. 14 that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has approved the agency’s proposal to allow schools to file for the eRate completely online using electronic certification.

Before, schools could complete the form online, but they also had to print out a certification page, sign it, and mail it in. Now, applicants will be permitted to use a personal identification number (PIN) to “sign” the form electronically.

The SLD receives more than 30,000 applications each year, and if each one of these applications requires a signed certification page to be mailed in separately, the approval process takes a long time, McDonald said. With electronic certification, the process is simplified and shorter.

“I think this is a very positive decision and a move in the right direction for school districts,” said Dennis Dempsey, interim superintendent of Crook Deschutes Education Service District in Redmond, Ore. “Most, if not all, of our local school districts file applications online, and this change should help expedite the application process.”

Kathy Schrock, technology coordinator for the Nauset Public Schools in Massachusetts, concurs: “Online submission is a great thing for those of us responsible for filing the eRate stuff. As long as we can easily print out a copy of the filled-in forms before we submit them, this will save a lot of time.”

In addition to making the online application process easier, McDonald addressed policy changes—one of the largest obstacles impeding the timely dissemination of eRate discounts.

Policy changes in past years of the program—such as the Children’s Internet Protection Act, which was enacted in Year Four—have caused significant backlogs as the SLD has had to wait for guidance and documents from the FCC. There was a new form in Year Three as well.

“We couldn’t move forward until we had the final form,” McDonald said.

FCC officials have promised there will be no new rules for Year Five of the eRate. McDonald said this would play a large role in making the eRate process faster and more efficient.

“In Year Five, if we have no change to the forms and no change to the process, it’ll be our best year ever,” he said. “If the program is stable, we have a better chance of getting those [funding commitment] letters out on time.”

McDonald also has focused his attention on fine-tuning the efficiency of the SLD’s day-to-day operation by putting all of the agency’s functions online, thereby creating a clear, accessible way for SLD staff to identify, understand, and be able to address backlogs.

“Kate Moore had a great ability to keep many things in her head and track them. I don’t have that capability,” McDonald said. “There’s so many pieces to this, I need to see it all laid out.”

The SLD will continue to conduct internal audits to help improve efficiency, enforce policy, and reduce violations. The agency also will continue to audit eRate beneficiaries to make sure they used the funds correctly, McDonald said.

Besides administrative obstacles, eRate advocates have had to answer objections from critics, primarily Republican, who say the FCC has created a bloated program that has forced long-distance telephone companies to raise their rates—even though it was Congress itself that initiated the eRate as part of a revision of the telecommunications act.

The current administration’s plans for the eRate are still unclear, but McDonald expects the program to continue to help provide connectivity to schools long into the future, especially as distance learning increases the need for advanced telecommunications.

“When I look and I see the demand, I don’t think [applicants] are saying, ‘I’ve gotten what I needed out of this program,'” he said.

Before joining the SLD, McDonald served as deputy director of the Office of Budget and Program Performance for the Department of Transportation. He is a graduate of Fordham University and holds a B.A. in Mathematics.

“Our national search provided us with a number of qualified candidates but, in the end, the best was in our own backyard,” said Cheryl Parrino, chief executive of USAC. “[McDonald] is very well-respected by key stakeholders and brings a wealth of experience, as well as a proven track record of success with the program.”

Links:

Schools and Libraries Division
http://www.sl.universalservice.org

Crook Deschutes Education Service District
http://www.cdesd.k12.or.us

Kathy Schrock’s Home Page
http://www.kathyschrock.net