A Bureaucratic Hassle, But Worth It
The phone call from the Universal Service Administrative Co. can mean only one thing, Betsy Sakasitz knows: more red tape involving the Bethlehem Area School District's E-rate application. This time, a staff member of the federal agency needs a bid number for a contract the district signed several years ago.
"They might ask us any question under the sun and expect we can go right to the answer," a frustrated Sakasitz says as she searches through an 8-inch-high stack of folders on her lap.
She pulls out a form and hands it to her boss, Scott R. Garrigan, the network coordinator for the 14,000-student district in eastern Pennsylvania. He says it isn't the right one.
So Sakasitz plunges back in and tries again.
"Bingo! That's it," Garrigan says.
By itself, USAC's request is just a small inconvenience. But Garrigan estimates that he and Sakasitz have each spent between a fourth and a third of their time on the job for the past three years handling paperwork for the E-rate program—time that he says they could have used to develop educational services over the district's computer network.
"We have only a few people to implement this monstrous network, and to have the E-rate take all this time is a real kick," Garrigan says.
But to some extent, this is a problem he's happy to have. Both Sakasitz and Garrigan say the hassles of the program are well worth the results.
With 30 percent of its students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, the Bethlehem district receives a 60 percent E-rate discount on services and equipment. In the first two years of the program, the district parlayed that discount into more than $700,000 worth of E-rate awards. Among other hardware necessities, the money paid for the switches, routers, and fiber- optic cabling to upgrade the district's computer network. The district also expanded its T-1 line Internet connection to a T-3 line, which permits many more people to use the Internet at the same time and to download such material as video or large images without bogging down the network.
"We've been able to meet emerging demand," Garrigan explains. "Before the E-rate, we were just beginning to have faculty and student use of the Internet. What it's permitted is a massive use of the Internet without students and teachers noticing any degradation of services."
Garrigan's biggest complaint with the E-rate program is that the people who designed the application process didn't understand how schools work, he says.
Initially, for example, the annual E- rate cycle matched the calendar year rather than a fiscal year that begins in, say, August, which schools customarily use for their budgets. That policy has since been changed.
But the rules are still full of requirements that only make sense to "the lawyers" who wrote them, Garrigan says.
E-rate paperwork involves a lot of red tape, but it's worth it, says one school network coordinator.
For instance, schools have to conduct a national bidding process for all E-rate contracts—a policy that is intended to help reduce costs.
In fact, says Garrigan, it often isn't practical to hire nonlocal companies because they may have difficulty rounding up technicians to fix problems in a timely manner. So he designed his requests for bids in such a way that they could likely be met only by local companies.
"The burden for doing this in a way we get the benefits is totally on us," Garrigan says. "To try to envision the problems way out takes enormous planning."
In addition, he says, the E-rate rules are too inflexible.
For example, the district was unable to use $25,000 in discounts it was awarded during the program's first year for a particular company to expand a wide-area network leased by the district. The company changed management and no longer wanted to carry out the work, but the program's rules didn't allow the district to switch vendors for the expansion without losing E- rate aid for leasing the network.
Garrigan figures the district lost another $12,000 in E-rate awards for Year 2 because it had stated on its application that it would receive one combined bill from two vendors providing Internet and telecommunications services; in fact, the billing was done through separate bills from each of the vendors. USAC's Schools and Libraries Division said it wouldn't pay the bills, so the district had to pick up the costs itself.
‘The incentives are very strong. We almost can't afford
not to apply. ’
Scott R. Garrigan,
Then, there's the problem of how long it often takes the SLD to let schools know the status of their requests. For Year 3, in which Garrigan requested more than $500,000 in discounts, he received letters granting or denying some requests eight months after submitting his district's application— a time lag that he says makes planning difficult.
Garrigan is by no means the only school technology leader who has run into such problems with E-rate applications. Several people serving on the Federal-State Joint Board on Universal Service, which makes recommendations to the Federal Communications Commission on how to operate the E-rate, acknowledge that the application process needs to be simplified.
"We wanted to make sure we could track the dollars," says Laska Schoenfelder, a co-chairwoman of the joint board. "We became so obsessed with the fact that people would get the money for the right purposes that it was too bureaucratic."
Despite his complaints about the program, Garrigan plans to apply for E-rate discounts every year. "The incentives for a district that has a reasonable level of poverty are very strong," he says. "We almost can't afford not to apply."
Vol. 20, Issue 3, Page 7