If you’re one of the thousands of eRate applicants still waiting to hear about your 2004 funding requests, eRate consultants have some important advice: Reapply now for discounts on these same products and services to cover all your bases before the 2005 deadline passes.

On Jan. 11, the Schools and Libraries Division (SLD) of the Universal Service Administrative Co.–the agency that administers the $2.25 billion-a-year program–sent letters notifying 2,700 applicants they would be getting $510 million in eRate discounts for the 2004 program year. With this 11th wave of letters, the SLD said it expects to resume issuing funding commitments on 2004 applications every two weeks.

But even after this latest round of notifications, at least 3,300 applicants still await a decision on roughly $800 million to help pay for their 2004 internet, telephone, and internal wiring costs. The delay also makes it difficult for these applicants to apply for the 2005 program year before the Feb. 17 deadline.

The Gadsden City Schools in Alabama, whose 15 schools serve 5,300 students, is one such district that is waiting to find out if its approximately $500,000 in internal connections requests will be funded. The district did receive notice in late November that the telecommunications portion of its 2004 eRate application had been approved. “We want to upgrade the infrastructure in our schools from 10 to 100 megabits per second,” said David Asbury, Gadsden City Schools’ technology coordinator. “We are just continuing to use what we have in place for now.”

Because of the delay, the district has, for the first time, reapplied for the exact same request two years in a row, knowing it might simply cancel its 2005 request if the 2004 funding comes through. “It’s certainly a lot of time and effort to have to go through that process again, hopefully without need,” Asbury said. “It’s a lot of duplication of effort on our part because they are so far behind” in funding 2004 applications.

Receiving such late notice on its telecommunications funding also meant the district had to scrounge up local funds to pay for its telephone and internet service, which costs about $168,000 annually.

“I’m very supportive of the program. We would have to shut a lot of things down if we didn’t have the program. Even though it has been a burden this year, we look at it as a burden that is worthwhile,” Asbury said. “This year has been particularly difficult because of the late notification of telecommunications funding, [so] we had to search for those funds internally.”

The SLD said it is resuming its biweekly issuance of funding commitment letters now that President Bush has signed an exemption to the Anti-Deficiency Act (ADA).

“If you haven’t heard from us in 2004, you are probably pretty anxious, and we hope to get those letters out as soon as possible,” SLD spokesman Mel Blackwell said. He added that it’s unlikely all 2004 letters would be sent before the 2005 filing window closes.

Historically, the eRate’s funding years have overlapped–but the delay in issuing 2004 funding commitment letters was exacerbated by the Federal Communications Commission’s need to adhere to the ADA, a federal law requiring government entities to have the money in hand before promising it. (See “eRate chaos looms for schools,” http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showstory.cfm?ArticleID=5341.)

As a result, the FCC stopped issuing funding commitments Aug. 3. The majority of 2004 applications languished unanswered until the end of November, when the SLD released 5,300 letters worth $317 million. Frustrated by the slow trickle of funding commitments, the education and library communities strongly lobbied members of Congress to draft and pass legislation that would exempt the eRate from complying with the ADA.

Fortunately for eRate applicants nationwide, Congress passed a bill that exempts the eRate from complying with the ADA until Dec. 31, 2005, and Bush signed it into law Dec. 23.

The SLD is encouraging all applicants to apply as early as possible for 2005, even if they don’t know what funding they will get for the 2004 program year. “Don’t sleep [through] the date,” Blackwell said. “Don’t wait until the last minute.”

Even though the 2005 filing window closes Feb. 17, Form 470 applications–which indicate which products and services applicants are seeking bids for–must be filed no later than Thursday, Jan. 20, as rules stipulate that these forms must be posted to the SLD web site for 28 days before filing a Form 471.

“It’s always good advice never to wait to the last minute. Things can always go wrong, whether it’s coming down with the flu or computer crashes,” said Sara Fitzgerald, vice president of communications for eRate consulting firm Funds for Learning LLC.

Fitzgerald and others recommend that applicants reapply for what they requested in 2004 if they haven’t received a decision yet. If the 2004 funding comes through, applicants can always cancel or cut back their 2005 requests.

On the new Form 471, applicants would check a box indicating that the request is a duplicate of an application already pending. In fact, there are new versions of all forms this year. The new versions beef up certifications for items such as technology plans and the applicant’s match in an effort to curb waste, fraud, and abuse.

Despite the persistent overlap in funding years, most applicants and school and library advocacy groups are relieved that funding will resume normally for at least the next year.

“We’re very happy that the ADA waiver went through,” said Mary Kusler, legislative specialist for the American Association of School Administrators (AASA). “There might be a backlog of getting letters out, but at least they are getting out.”

Though schools and libraries would benefit from receiving early notice of their funding commitments, “it’s not unusual in the program’s history that applicants are making requests without knowing what they got for the prior funding year,” Fitzgerald said. “Last time I checked, there were still $200 million in 2003 requests that were still pending.”

She added: “SLD hopes to approve more applications earlier, but every year things seem to conspire against them.”

Links:

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

Gadsden City Schools
http://www.gcs.k12.al.us

Funds for Learning LLC
http://www.fundsforlearning.com

American Association of School Administrators
http://www.aasa.org