As the 2008-09 e-Rate filing window approaches, e-Rate coordinators from schools and libraries across the country are attending training sessions designed to give them vital information about what’s new with the $2.25 billion-a-year federal program.
This year’s answer (to the relief of many): Not much.
Although in past years, e-Rate administrators have promoted a variety of new forms and rule changes, this year’s training sessions are focusing on a “back to the basics” approach.
“The whole thrust this year is to try to get people to [understand that] when you do the basics right, your application generally goes right,” said Mel Blackwell, vice president of the Universal Service Administrative Company’s Schools and Libraries Division (SLD), the agency that administers the e-Rate.
“This year, we’ve kept it kind of static so we can focus on the basics. We’ve found over the years that some of the same basic mistakes keep cropping up–we’re focusing on that,” Blackwell said.
Despite this back-to-the-basics approach, there are a few new changes to the program, which provides telecommunications discounts to eligible schools and libraries.
One such change is more time for applicants to respond to requests for additional information from SLD. The amount of time has increased from seven to 15 days.
Another new change, Blackwell said, is that SLD will identify all items on e-Rate applications that are causes for denial.
In the past, the agency would stop at the first mistake it came to that would cause an applicant not to receive funding. If an applicant appealed SLD’s decision and was successful, however, there might have been another denial waiting around the corner as the application proceeded.
Now, SLD will go through the entire application and will provide information on every mistake or cause for denial. This way, applicants will know about all the things that prevented them from receiving funding and will be able to apply that knowledge to the next year’s application.
In the past, SLD was limited to 175 characters when describing what went awry with a school’s application. Now, that limit has been increased to 2,000 characters.
Applicants must file Form 470, a description of the services requested, at least 28 days before they sign contracts and file a Form 471, which describes the services ordered. The filing window for Form 471 begins in early November and runs through early February preceding each funding year, which begins July 1 and runs through the following June 30.
This year’s training sessions highlight some of the mistakes that applicants commonly make on their e-Rate forms.
Blackwell said the most frequent mistakes are failing to provide adequate documentation, requesting ineligible services, incorrectly calculating your discount rate, violating the program’s competitive-bidding rules, and violating the 28-day posting period for your Form 470. (Applicants must wait 28 days after filing Form 470 before they can sign a contract, to give companies a chance to bid for their services.)
Tip sheets and checklists are available to make the filing process easier. Educators can use checklists and suggested job aids for better chances at success when filing an appeal.
“We’re really trying to put a big focus on showing people as much as we can, telling them as much, helping them as much, and also making sure they know what the basics are,” Blackwell said. “[We think we’ll] see more people being successful and filing fewer appeals, and when you get to that point, the process goes more quickly.”
He added: “Year after year, we’ve had a lot of big changes, new forms, new ways to apply, and we’re taking a breather. [We] think things will look a bit more familiar to people for two years in a row.”
Training sessions touch on what documents to keep, how to write a solid technology plan, how to run an effective competitive-bidding process, and how to navigate a Program Integrity Assurance (PIA) review, or audit, which ensures that e-Rate support is committed only for eligible products and services, as well as for eligible uses by eligible entities.
SLD recommends that e-Rate applicants keep documents for five years from the last day that services are delivered for a particular fiscal year. Both applicants and service providers should keep all records related to the application, receipt, and delivery of discounted services.
Blackwell said the top five kinds of documentation that are most frequently missing are discount verifications, adequately maintained asset listings, signed and dated contracts, consultant agreements, and bid evaluation or award schedules.
Applicants are advised to make copies of all forms and create an e-Rate folder to help keep information organized and accessible.
The sessions also include a demonstration of the online Form 486, which confirms receipt of services; how to determine which products and services are eligible for e-Rate support, how to appeal successfully, and how to invoice SLD.
Training took place in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 13-14 and in Orlando, Fla., on Sept. 18-19. Future sessions will take place in Boston, Mass., Sept. 27-28; New Orleans, La., Oct. 2-3; Cleveland, Ohio, Oct. 9-10; San Francisco, Calif., Oct. 17-18; and Phoenix, Ariz., Oct. 24-25.
Training materials, as well as sample documents and checklists, can be found on SLD’s web site.
“We’re going to really work with people on getting back to the basics,” Blackwell reiterated. “If you do the fundamentals right, then you get [funding].”