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eRate applicants face important changes with this year’s program


Nearly $2.3 billion is available this year to help schools and libraries acquire telecommunications services and internet infrastructure.

As schools get ready to apply for federal eRate discounts for the 2012 funding year, applicants and service providers will notice some new changes to the nearly $2.3 billion-a-year program that helps schools and libraries acquire telecommunications services and internet infrastructure.

The two biggest changes to the program are new gift enforcement rules and updates to the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA).

New gift rules have been “the most talked-about” changes, said Mel Blackwell, vice president of the Schools and Libraries Division of the Universal Service Administrative Co. (USAC), which administrates the eRate under the direction of the Federal Communications Commission.

The new rules are intended to prevent service providers from currying favor or influencing the bidding process by bestowing gifts on school employees. They come in response to controversies that have played out in districts such as Houston and Dallas, which have landed in hot water with the U.S. Justice Department for accepting gifts that violate federal competitive-bidding requirements.

For more eRate guidance, see also:

How to make sense of the new eRate gift rules

Five tips for eRate success

Blackwell said focusing on four key points can help service providers and eRate applicants alike navigate the new gift rules:

1. Gifts cannot be used in any way that would influence the eRate bidding process. “That’s the broad, general, underlying principle,” Blackwell said. “If you think anything you’re doing could be interpreted as—or is, in fact—influencing the bidding process, then you shouldn’t do it.”

2. The order is not intended to discourage charitable gifts. “It’s not saying you can’t give [or receive] charitable gifts—there’s no problem with that, as long as you’re not giving them as a direct result of trying to get business,” Blackwell said. An acceptable example is donating books to benefit an entire school or library, as long as the action is of a broad nature, does not target a single individual or group of decision makers, and is not intended to influence the bidding process or steer business toward the gift giver.

3. The gift rules apply year-round, not just during the school year or the eRate application process.

4. The new rules put a $20 limit on all gifts to individuals, including meals—and a $50 annual limit on all gifts per person. That means a school or district technology director couldn’t accept a free meal that costs $25, for example—or a third $20 meal in a single year from the same service provider.

Both applicants and service providers are responsible for keeping careful records about their gift giving and receiving during the year, and they should be prepared to hand over these records in the event of an audit.

Privately, many service providers have expressed concerns about the new gift rules. They’re worried the new rules are too stringent and will force many changes in how they do business—hampering their ability to hold raffles encouraging school personnel to visit their booth during trade shows, for instance.

In March, the Education and Libraries Network Coalition (EdLiNC) filed a brief with the FCC seeking clarification on a few points related to the new gift rules. In particular, EdLiNC asked if the rules could apply only to individuals with a direct bearing on the eRate procurement process, and not all educators.

The group also asked the FCC to allow exceptions for raffles in which eRate employees participate—“so long as the eRate vendors have no control over the awarding of the auction or raffle prizes.” As of press time, the FCC had yet to respond.

CIPA updates

There are no changes to the CIPA requirements for libraries. But schools must amend their existing internet safety policies by July 1, 2012, to include information about how they are educating students about proper online behavior, cyber bullying, and social networking sites.

For more eRate guidance, see also:

How to make sense of the new eRate gift rules

Five tips for eRate success

USAC will look at schools’ CIPA policies to confirm that they are, in fact, meeting the new requirements, Blackwell said.

As part of the continuing CIPA requirements, schools and libraries must have an internet safety policy, a technology protection measure such as web filtering or monitoring software, and a public notice of—and a public meeting or hearing about—their internet safety policy.

Internet safety policies must address specific policy issues, including access to inappropriate material, safety and security when using direct electronic communications, unauthorized access, and more. In schools only, the internet safety policy must include the monitoring of minors’ online activities.

Schools and libraries are advised to keep a copy of their internet safety policies, retain documentation proving that filters are in place, and keep documentation of both a public notice of a hearing and a board agenda, meeting minutes, or other documentation from the meeting itself.

eRate progress

Blackwell said USAC has seen a record number of eRate training attendees this year.

“We kind of thought at the start that we might not have many people because of budgets,” he said. But “in today’s economic climate, everybody wants the latest information and knowledge of nuances that could cause them not to get funding.”

In recent years, USAC has been much more proactive in ensuring that eRate applicants have the necessary information to complete eRate forms correctly and on time. Those efforts have paid off, Blackwell said, noting that in 2005, 84 percent of applicants received funding, and in 2010, 92 percent of applicants received funding.

USAC’s Helping Applicants To Succeed (HATS) program has been successful as well, Blackwell said. A few years ago, 625 applicants missed a filing deadline. After USAC brought the HATS program to those applicants, reminding them a few times of the impending deadlines, only 25 applicants missed the deadline.

The training sessions’ “Road to Success” presentation helps applicants understand what they should do to stay on top of their eRate applications and the filing process in general.

“We’re trying to do the best that we can to help people remember what to do, when, and how to do it,” Blackwell said. “It’s easier for us to review a good application than one that has a lot of flaws.”

eRate applicants who are unable to attend national training sessions can access USAC’s presentation materials here.

At its board meeting in late October, USAC’s Schools and Libraries Division approved a resolution stating that the filing window for funding year 2012 would open no earlier than Jan. 5 and would remain open for about 70 days. That was the latest information available as of press time.

For more eRate guidance, see also:

How to make sense of the new eRate gift rules

Five tips for eRate success

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