Frustrated by how long it takes to appeal a rejected eRate application, a Florida school district is forming an eRate coalition that will ask a federal court to force the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to expedite the review of outstanding eRate appeals.

The Palm Beach County School District sent letters Oct. 17 inviting 400 school and library eRate applicants, whose applications are still stuck in the appeals process, to join the coalition.

By the end of this year, Chadbourne & Parke LLP, a New York-based corporate law firm, will file a petition on behalf of the coalition with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

“We want to show the court that this is not an isolated problem,” said JulieAnne Rico Allison, chief council for the Palm Beach County School Board. “Hopefully with strength in numbers, our voices will be heard.”

The Schools and Libraries Division (SLD) of the Universal Service Administrative Co., which oversees the $2.25 billion program denied Palm Beach County’s 2002 application Sept. 9, 2002 because the district did not issue a Request For Proposal or Form 470.

The district appealed the decision with the FCC because, according to SLD’s rules, the district understood that its multi-year contract meant it did not have to re-bid. “We felt we were caught up in a rulemaking that was hyper-technical,” Rico Allison said.

When district officials inquired about the status of the review, they were told the appeal could take up to four years to process, because there were already 400 others in line. “We are 398 of 400 schools on review,” Rico Allison said.

The $3.1 million in eRate discounts at stake represents a third of the district’s annual technology expenditure. “This money is really needed so to be told by a congressionally mandated fund, ‘Oh whoops, on a technicality, you’re not going to get the funds’ was pretty frustrating,” Rico Allison said.

In the mean time, the district has to cover the costs. “If we had access to the revenue source we counted on and relied on we would have the money, but for now we are spending our capital budget,” Rico Allison said. “It cuts into money that could be spent elsewhere.”

Knowing that other school districts are in similar situations also awaiting FCC decisions, the Palm Beach County schools decided to take legal action. “It’s a bureaucratic wall we’ve run into, and we don’t know what else to do,” Rico Allison said.

Hwan Kim, partner and co-chair of the telecommunications and technology practice of Chadbourne & Parke, estimates that the courts would give the FCC no more than a year to process the appeals involved in the petition.

“In a proceeding that involves human welfare or education, the courts require the agency to act quickly,” Kim said. “What will happen in effect by the court ordering this is that the FCC will take notice and hire more staff and get working on it.”

An FCC representative told eSchool News the agency is working as quickly as it can to process all pending applications and had no further comment.

Win Himsworth, president of the consulting group E-Rate Central, agreed there is frustration with how long it takes to appeal decisions of both the FCC and the SLD but said these agencies face far more important issues that affect a greater number of applicants and require immediate attention.

For example, eRate applicants are awaiting clarification from the FCC on the latest eligible services list released Oct. 10, as well as decisions on proposed changes to the discount matrix and the rollover of unused funds.

“I’d much rather see those issues resolved than some of these other issues,” Himsworth said.

The deadline to join the petition is Dec. 17 and costs $10,000 in legal fees. More information is available at the Chadbourne & Parke web site listed below.

Links:

Chadbourne & Parke LLP eRate web site
http://chadbourne.com/usf/usf.html

The Federal Communications Commission
http://www.fcc.gov

The Schools and Libraries Division
http://www.e-ratecentral.com

E-Rate Central
http://www.e-ratecentral.com