As the filing window for the 2007-08 funding year draws near, schools and libraries applying for discounts under the $2.25 billion-a-year federal eRate program have at their disposal a host of new resources intended to help them navigate the complex funding process.

Though the 2007 filing window cannot open until officials at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approve a revised list of services that are eligible for discounts under next year’s program, the Schools and Libraries Division (SLD) of the Universal Service Administrative Co. (USAC), the independent outfit tapped by the FCC to help oversee the eRate, says it expects to begin processing applications as early as mid-November, giving schools about a month to make final preparations.

In this special feature, eSchool News talks with SLD Vice President Mel Blackwell about what’s new for the 2007 funding year and examines the strides program administrators are taking to streamline the process for applicants, many of whom have voiced frustrations over the program and its track record of abuse.

A ‘new sense’ of customer service

Realizing that schools and libraries continue to struggle with the filing process, Blackwell says the SLD has been working hard to make customer service a top priority this funding year, adding new services and online functions meant to ease the burden on applicants, while doing everything within its power to uphold and ensure the program’s integrity.

Operating under the mantra “speed, accuracy, and ease of use,” program administrators have spent the last several months traveling the country to highlight a series of new customer-centric aspects of the program.

In addition to a revamped web site intended to help applicants find information more efficiently, the SLD also is touting the success of its electronic PIN system. Launched last year, the online PIN tool enables program applicants to file required forms for consideration via the internet, cutting down on the amount of paper that program administrators must sift through when evaluating applications.

In their first year, Blackwell estimates, new online PIN and electronic filing options were used by some 14,000 applicants, reducing the amount of paperwork processed by the SLD by some 50,000 pages.

This year, program administrators have announced the addition of an online BEAR (Billed Entity Applicant Reimbursement) form. This is the form used by applicants to receive discounts from the SLD when they opt to pay for eRate-eligible services in full up front. Once these services have been delivered, applicants may fill out a BEAR form, which must be signed by both the applicant and service provider, and submit it to the SLD for a refund on the discounted portion.

Since the program’s inception, the process of contacting service providers to sign off on BEAR forms traditionally has been done through the mail and has been known to take weeks, even months, to complete. Now, using the online form–which is signed by both parties using an online PIN–applicants can approach the SLD for discounts as soon as the work is completed.

The SLD contends the new forms will enable program administrators to improve their invoicing procedures, cutting down on clerical errors and expediting their response time to applicants.

“Our objective is to get the money out as soon as possible,” Blackwell said. He expects the continued automation of clerical duties will free up administrators so they can focus more attention on program improvements, such as speeding up the approval process.

Outreach and training for applicants and service providers reportedly is another point of emphasis this year. Apart from increasing the number of training sessions available to applicants and hiring new staff to help conduct outreach programs, the SLD also will hold a spring training session for service providers to help them better understand their role in the eRate process.

“If people know exactly what the rules are and what things are new, then they won’t likely find themselves in an appeal situation,” said Blackwell.

Training is especially important given the high rate of employee turnover in schools, he said, adding, “The more we can get out and tell people the right way to do things in plain and simple ‘American,’ the more people will do it.”

Schools and service providers also might consider signing up for the SLD’s new online news brief. Delivered to subscribers’ eMail in-boxes once a week, the online newsletter helps applicants keep track of program deadlines and informs them of additional rule changes. A series on online Tip Sheets also are available now on the SLD web site.

New policies in 2007

The 2007 program year marks the first application of the “Two-in-Five” rule. The rule, which restricts applicants from applying for discounts on internal connections–the wiring, routers, switches, and network file servers necessary to bring internet access into classrooms–more than twice within any five-year period, was first enacted in 2005, meaning any applicant who received funding for internal connections in both 2005 and 2006 would not be eligible to apply for these services again until 2010.

Importantly, Blackwell said, the Two-in-Five rule applies only to schools and libraries whose funding requests are granted. That means if you apply for funding and, for whatever reason, your request is not approved, you maintain your eligibility.

Blackwell said the SLD is working on developing an online tool that will help applicants determine their eligibility under the rule.

Another change that should help reduce the number of appeals received by the SLD is the Bishop Perry Order. Issued by the FCC earlier this year, the order required the SLD to reevaluate 196 applications received during the 2006 funding year and denied as a result of clerical errors.

The FCC reportedly granted the appeals after several applicants complained that the filing process was too complicated. Government officials responded by directing USAC to reform its policies in the future, making the process easier and providing more of an opportunity for applicants to make corrections, while still keeping in place certain provisions meant to safeguard the program from instances of waste, fraud, and abuse.

Expecting an audit?

To keep the program as secure as possible, eRate administrators say they plan to conduct as many as 160 site-based audits throughout the year.

The audits, conducted in accordance with the Improper Payments Information Act, will examine payments made through the program from Oct. 1, 2004, to Sept. 30, 2005. Each audit will focus on reviewing applicant payment processes, identifying errors, and reducing the chances of improper payments in the future, according to USAC.

Besides safeguarding the program through audits, USAC said it also plans to conduct an additional 100 educational site visits intended to provide applicants with individualized training and support.

Conducted as part of the Schools and Libraries Site Visit Initiative, this strictly educational effort focuses on providing support for schools and libraries that historically have struggled to achieve compliance. Unlike the audit component, SLD officials say, the site visit program is not intended to weed out eRate offenders, but rather to improve applicants’ odds of receiving funds under the program.

Tips to remember

When filing for the eRate, Blackwell said, there are a number of steps applicants can take to avoid mistakes and other potentially costly delays.

For starters, he said, schools and libraries should work hard to file their applications as early as possible. While filing early gives SLD staff members more time to sift through and evaluate thousands of applications, it also gives applicants more chances to correct inadvertent mistakes and clerical errors before the filing window closes.

Filing late “puts the applicant in a terrible situation, because there are a lot of things one can do before that window closes,” noted Blackwell in an interview with eSchool News.

Equally important, he said, schools and libraries should avoid filing for Priority 1 and Priority 2 services on the same application. Rather than file for these together, he said, applicants should file for each type of service separately, a strategic move that decreases confusion over eligibility and provides for a clear paper trail back to the original request.

Where possible, he said, applicants also should seek to file online. Apart from dramatically reducing the amount of paperwork shuffled from desk to desk and office to office, he said, online applications have been designed to help applicants eliminate errors by providing pop-up alerts and other automated safeguards meant to cut down on mistakes. What’s more, he said, online forms collect applications based on a common file format that is easy for SLD staff members to collect and evaluate.

Finally, he said, it’s imperative that applicants and service providers alike hold on to their paperwork. The SLD recommends that all applicants retain eRate paperwork for at least five years, keeping it in a safe place that can be easily accessed by the appropriate staff in the event of site-based audits or other program-related questions.

As the SLD continues looking for new and innovative ways to strengthen the program, Blackwell said, the goal is to create a better working relationship between program administrators, applicants, and service providers. Rather than view the SLD mainly as an enforcer of program rules, he said, the hope is that applicants and others intimately involved with the eRate will come to view the SLD as a partner, working in the best interests of its customers.

“The key is to continue to listen to people and to communicate,” Blackwell said.

Efforts paying off

eRate coordinators across the country say that, so far, they’re encouraged by the steps program administrators are taking.

Delilah Collins, eRate coordinator for the Colorado Department of Education, where more than 80 percent of schools rely on some form of eRate funding, said new resources such as the revamped web site and online news briefs have helped applicants get answers to questions they previously would have been expected to find on their own.

For the first time this year, “USAC is actually putting out information, as opposed to making applicants go looking for it,” said Collins, who added, “They’re definitely headed in the right direction.”

Della Mathis, state eRate coordinator for Alaska, said recent FCC decisions such as the Bishop Perry Order have helped reduce much of the anxiety felt by applicants.

“People used to be literally afraid of the program,” she said. “They dreaded filling out applications for fear that they would do something that would cost their schools or cost their libraries dearly.” Now, Mathis said, “a lot of that fear is gone.”

Mathis, who plans to retire at the end of this year, says that, for the first time, she feels as if she can leave the program “knowing that everything is going to be all right.”

Links:

Universal Service Administrative Co.
http://www.usac.org

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

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