Across the United States, educators are looking forward to participating in the coming eRate funding year with an eagerness normally reserved for root canals and colonoscopies. Although the program admittedly can be complex, you can ease your workload and reduce funding anxieties by following these 10 simple suggestions.

1. Start early.

If you’re reading this and haven’t filed a Form 470, get going, at least for your basic services. Though the Schools and Libraries Division (SLD) establishes a window for filing funding requests, the Form 470 can be filed any time. Waiting until the last minute increases the possibility for mistakes, so do it now. If there are additions or changes later, you can file additional forms.

2. File electronically.

Though many participants complain about various aspects of the eRate program, few can deny that its online filing process is easy and reliable. The ability to save incomplete documents allows you to populate forms with basic information on your district and fill in other information as it becomes available. What makes online filing even better is that the online form cannot be submitted without certain information fields filled in. That means when you successfully submit your form, it meets the minimum processing standards established by the SLD. That’s especially important if you’re filing close to a deadline.

3. Certify immediately.

All of the online forms need to be certified after submission, either using a personal identification number (PIN) assigned to you or with an original signature on paper. We advise clients to apply for a PIN, but whichever way you go, do it immediately. Wait a day, and you’ll forget about it as your regular job closes back in around you.

4. List someone from your school or district as the contact person on your Form 470.

As consultants, we appear as the listed contact for most forms and for audits and reviews, but we always advise our client schools to list themselves on their Form 470.

There are two reasons for this. The first is pretty obvious: The school district is the best source of information about the specific telecommunications needs it has listed on the form. The second reason is that it prevents a school from inadvertently listing someone who is either a service provider or is linked to a service provider as the contact, which is a sure-fire way to get rejected (see box at right).

So why not list your eRate consultant on the Form 470? From our viewpoint, we provide expertise in the eRate process and have no business being involved in any purchasing deliberations other than answering eligibility questions and ensuring compliance. Keeping our name off the Form 470 keeps us out of the bidding and selection process.

5. Check your Form 470 before you sign a contract.

You might hear very faint–but blood-curdling–screams each summer and wonder where they come from. We can tell you. They come from superintendents across the United States whose funding requests were denied because they signed a contract less than 28 days after filing their Form 470. And don’t say, “How dumb can you get?” It happens all the time.

Before you sign any contracts, make sure the 28-day posting period for Form 470 has elapsed. An easy way to do this is to check your Form 470 as it appears on the SLD’s web site. It will state the earliest date you can sign a contract for items listed on that form. It’s there for the vendor to see, too, but your salesperson might forget this in his anxiety to have you sign so he can use his commission check for a Boxster down payment.

6. Gather documentation materials beforehand.

Before you file a funding request, do your homework and assemble the documentation for that request. Make notes on how you got the request figure if it’s not exactly what is on the bill; it’s probably going to be six months before your request is reviewed, and you’ll need something to jog your memory.

Taking a wild guess and figuring that it will all get sorted out during the review process is a recipe for disaster. Overestimate the figure, and you’ll get denied because an excessive amount of the request was ineligible or because you were unable to provide documentation to justify the request. The same goes for expenses that are clearly ineligible: Get rid of them up front. You’ll sleep better–and fare better in the review.

7. Take advantage of the RAL grace period.

The SLD issues a Receipt Acknowledgment Letter (RAL) to let you know that your Form 471 has been certified and accepted by the agency. You have three weeks from the RAL issue date to change basic information in the form, correct errors made by the SLD, change funding categories, and lower (but not raise) the dollar amounts you’ve requested.

If you did sloppy work putting together a Form 471, you can correct many of your most egregious errors during this time. Unfortunately, most people are so glad to have the forms submitted on time that they don’t take advantage of this grace period; later, after getting a funding denial, they wish they had.

8. Keep it together.

One funding year requires a lot of paperwork, and it helps if you can keep it together. At eRate Consulting Services, we use something called a Classification Folder. It looks like a file folder, but it has six “pages” with metal prongs for holding two-hole punched paper. You can use each page for a different form and related correspondence. Keeping everything for a particular funding year in one place–forms, correspondence, and documentation–makes it easy to locate what you need, even if it’s from a previous funding year.

9. Use the SLD’s web site.

It’s a well-organized source of information and tools, where you can learn the daily status of your Form 471, file a Form 486 online, or read an in-depth paper on wide-area network eligibility. The SLD also can answer your questions by eMail or telephone. Use these resources to gather information and reduce your work time.

10. Use someone like us.

If you’ve read these tips and still feel that eRate processing makes your brain hurt–or that you’re genetically unable to file forms more than 10 minutes before deadline–hire an eRate consultant to help you. You’ll reduce your workload and avoid unpleasant surprises at funding time.

Bob and Georgia Morrow are a husband-and-wife team who handle client schools for eRate Consulting Services LLC, an Atlanta-based company that provides consulting services to both applicants and service providers. Bob spent 31 years with BellSouth, while Georgia has handled provisioning duties for a number of telephone and internet firms, including Earthlink predecessor Mindspring.