For at least the fourth time in six years, the New Orleans public school system is in danger of missing out on millions of dollars in federal eRate funding to help pay for the wiring and equipment necessary to bring high-speed internet access into its classrooms.

Botched applications reportedly cost the district nearly $87 million in eRate funding requests from 2000 to 2002. This year, board politics are threatening to sink the district’s $28 million application.

On Feb. 28, the Orleans Parish school board voted 3-3 with one member absent to deny Superintendent Anthony Amato’s administration the $5 million it needs to pay for its share of the district’s proposed telecommunications costs.

“It’s lunacy. Somebody didn’t get the piece of paper she asked for, and now we’re going to lose $28 million [in funding],” said board member Jimmy Fahrenholtz, who backed Amato’s request.

Board president Torin Sanders said some board members wanted to see more documentation before approving local spending on the project.

“If we’re serious about fiscal reform, then we should at the very least be able to see what we are voting on before we’re committing money,” Sanders said.

Sanders said Amato habitually asks the board for approval on items that members have not had time to review.

Heidi Daniels, who also voted against Amato, stressed that the board could call a special meeting at any time to approve the matching funds.

But Orleans Parish’s application is already behind schedule. The eRate program, run by the Schools and Libraries Division (SLD) of the Universal Service Administrative Co., a privately contracted arm of the Federal Communications Commission, requires that all applications have board-approved matching funds before they are authorized. The deadline to submit applications for funding year 2005 was Feb. 18.

SLD spokesman Mel Blackwell told the Times-Picayune of New Orleans that the district still could get the federal money–but only if it acts quickly.

Blackwell did not give a deadline by which the board must act, but he said that if the $5 million local match isn’t approved by the time his agency reviews the district’s application, the application will be denied. He urged the board to move forward quickly, because its application could be reviewed at any time.

Amato told the Times-Picayune he waited until after his staff completed and mailed the application to request money from the board because he wanted to be able to present all the details at once. After staff members addressed minor questions from board members at a nonvoting committee meeting, he assumed they all would vote for what he considered a routine matter, he said.

“This, to me, was a no-brainer,” he told the newspaper, adding that he plans to ask the board to call a special meeting March 10 to again seek approval for the money.

Board member Una Anderson, who also backed Amato’s request, said the vote sheds light on board politics that remain dysfunctional despite the recent election of five new members and a pledge to work together.

“I’m terribly disappointed with the current state of the board,” she said. “I’m not going to go into the board politics. But I think it was pretty evident tonight. … I think we’ve not accomplished the task of working together as a team … for the good of the children.”

Daniels disagreed, pointing out that the split was the exception on issues taken up by the new board, which passed all but one of 11 motions at the meeting.

“I think we’re getting along,” she said.

In 2000, false filings, missed deadlines, and myriad errors cost the school system its entire $54 million eRate request.

Leroy Prout, then the district’s chief information officer, reportedly didn’t put together an application for 2001 until the last minute. He asked for, and got, $5 million, but lost his appeals of the 2000 decision.

Soon after, according to wire service reports, Prout was fired.

In 2002, the district applied for $33 million in eRate funding but received just $1.4 million. SLD officials said the district failed to follow proper procedures in getting competitive bids before choosing three vendors.

Designed specifically for low-income school systems such as New Orleans, the eRate provides discounts on telecommunications services, internet access, and internal wiring to eligible schools and libraries. Based on the percentage of its students who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, New Orleans qualifies for discounts of between 80 and 90 percent of the cost of these services.

Links:

New Orleans Public Schools
http://www.nops.k12.la.us

Orleans Parish School Board
http://www.nops.k12.la.us/content/board/board.html

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