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Thursday, November 30, 2006

End of an era

I hear that Phil Gieseler is leaving the SLD. I can't say I'm happy about that. I often disagreed with Phil, but I always appreciated that he was willing to explain his thinking and to listen to mine. (Or at least appear to listen.)

But what I remember Phil for best was the epiphany he gave me at the beginning of my consulting career. After having submitted applications for school districts for years, I had, shall we say, an ill opinion of the SLD, finding them capricious and intractable. Then I went to the old "Train-the-Trainer" session in DC. (For those new to the program, training used to be given to 4 representatives from each state who were then to turnkey the training to the applicants in their state.) I remember when Phil got up to give his presentation, I was all excited. Here was the guru of eligibility, the ultimate arbiter of appropriateness. Finally, I could get straight answers to my many questions on eligibility, straight from the horse's mouth.

But then in his introductory remarks, he said something like: "I think I have a pretty good handle on the FCC's thinking on eligible services." My jaw dropped, and my spirits fell; where could I get answers to my questions?

Then the scales fell from my eyes, and I finally understood: the SLD was not making capricious decisions, they were just trying to figure out what the FCC wanted. That one sentence changed my whole approach to the SLD. The SLD is not the enemy, they are just trying to do what the FCC wants. They cannot give straight answers to simple questions unless the FCC has given that straight answer, and like me, they are groping in the fog. The SLD doesn't get to make the decision they think is right, they follow the rules set down by the FCC as best they can. No longer do I try to convince them that I am right. Instead, I try to convince them that the FCC wants whatever it is I'm asking for. And now I have a nice relationship with the SLD, and I like my job better.

So thanks for that, Phil. That one sentence was more important to my understanding of this program than anything you could have said about eligible services. You made my professional life much more pleasant. Best wishes.

One thing I've been wondering since that fateful Train-the-Trainer: were Phil and Sam Waterston separated at birth?

Wednesday, November 22, 2006


Just when it looked like the FCC was going to let us get away with anything, we get the Kan-Ed decision. While the FCC was able to say they partially granted Kan-Ed's appeal, in reality they affirmed the unfortunate rules that exist concerning consortia, and gave Kan-Ed some time to get their house in order. Saying they granted Kan-Ed's appeal is like saying the Ysleta decision granted the appeal, just because the applicants got a do-over.

I don't think the decision is wrong, but it does continue to encourage the opposite of the behavior that the FCC wants. The FCC has stated from the beginning that it wants to "encourage schools and libraries to aggregate their demand with others to create a consortium with sufficient demand to attract competitors and thereby negotiate lower rates." In fact, the E-Rate rules do just the opposite. Whenever I get a client which is part of a consortium, I encourage them to break up the consortium. The E-Rate rules make it significantly more difficult to apply as a consortium than as a passle of independent entities.

I don't have a solution, though. (Those of you who have been reading this blog for a while must be surprised to hear me admit that I don't have all the solutions.) The LOAs used to be kind of pointless, since all a consortium really does is use its members NSLP numbers, and that doesn't seem to be a problem. LOAs address a problem that doesn't exist. The fraud in the program is by service providers, usually with some applicant complicity (or at least applicant ignorance). Of all the consortia I know, I can't imagine any trying to defraud the E-Rate, because there is no one in a consortium that would be able to benefit personally, and personal benefit is the only reason that fraud happens.

But now that we're stuck with the 2-in-5 rule, a consortium can now burn those years for its members. LOAs are a poor instrument for warning applicants about that possibility, but they're better than nothing.

The Jason rule

Here's my mask for next Halloween. It will certainly scare E-Rate applicants. The "two-signature/two-date" (2s/2d) rule is like Jason in the horror movies: every time there is an FCC ruling, I think it's dead, but it just keeps coming back. I thought the FCC killed it with the Richmond County order. But it still came back. Then I thought it got the wooden stake in the Gayville-Volin decision. But now I read an appeal which includes a letter from the SLD invoking 2s/2d on October 25, 2006.

I'm no expert on the Jason movies, but a quick IMDB search reveals that the 10th in the series (not counting Jason v Freddy, I think) takes place in space 500 years after the series "finale." Let's hope 2s/2d is not so tenacious.

I guess what we need is for the FCC to explicitly tell the SLD that a valid contract is a valid contract, regardless of how many dates are written on it.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

I'll see your remand and raise you

I love a juicy appeal. I never write appeals that are fun to read; mine are as respectful as I can stand to be, because of the whole honey/vinegar thing. And most applicants who file their own appeals are the same, coming to the FCC as a supplicant. But man, when the lawyers get involved, they sling around words that the rest of us find rude, and just hammer their points home over and over, casting everything in black (the SLD) and white (their poor, agrieved client). Always over the top.

What appeal got me going? The recent SEND Technologies appeal. It's full of words and phrases like 'unconscionably," "infirmities," "ignored the facts," "cannot be trusted to make fair and impartial decisions," "unalterably closed mind to the facts," and "students should no longer be made to suffer because of USAC's myriad failings." Fun reading.

Some interesting tidbits:
Is the Cynthia Schultz who filed the appeal the same Cynthia Schultz who was working for the SLD when these applications were originally denied? She wouldn't have had anything to do with the denials, I think, but it is an interesting note.

SEND claims that over the 5 years that the appeals have been going on, over $1,000,000 has been spent on legal fees. Gadzooks.

Pure speculation:
I'm wondering if the SLD is finally fed up with the FCC clearing their ginormous appeal docket by remanding every appeal in sight, often with little guidance on how to handle the case, but with tight deadlines. Oh, and no extra funding for USAC. The FCC remand order in this case said that "pattern analysis" was not sufficient evidence of improper service provider involvement in preparing the 470, but did not say what would be sufficient evidence. I wonder if the SLD just did a quick investigation and batted the case back into the FCC's court, hoping that the FCC would decide the case rather than re-remand it. Or maybe they just decided that with the resources they had, a real investigation of the matter was not possible in 60 days.

So what's the FCC to do? Perhaps send some OIG folks down to Louisiana to do a full audit of the applicants? Or an audit of the service provider? I can't recall a service provider ever being audited. Which is odd when you look at the list of debarred people and organizations; not too many applicants in that list.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Hurray for New Hampshire!

Kudos to the NH Dept. of Ed. They have provided a resource that every state should provide, and the SLD as well. They have provided a list of exemplary tech plans.

At every opportunity I get (which is not many), I have asked the SLD to post good and bad examples of tech plans. They don't have to be real plans, and they could scrub out district names if they had to, but I would think that any district would be happy to be the poster child for good tech planning. Even better, the SLD could annotate the plan (the way my high school teachers annotated my essays).

A couple of years back, I actually started to compile a Board of Shame: I asked the USAC auditors to send me audit results for some districts that had failed audits due to their tech plans, and started to compile negative examples of tech plans. But I stopped before I completed the project because I realized:
  1. tech plans are really boring, and
  2. I needed to focus on work than someone was actually going to pay me for.

But someone should do that work.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

No tech plan? No problem!

Another day, another appeal granted. Ho-hum. Two (mildly) interesting parts:
  1. The appeal was filed July 18, 2002. It's been sitting at the FCC for 4 years. Amazing.
  2. The FCC waived the tech plan requirement. I think this is new territory. And the FCC stuck to its new standard for appeals: No waste/fraud/abuse, no foul.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

2-in-5 Tool not the sharpest in the shed

Actually, I think the new 2-in-5 Tool is pretty good, but I couldn't resist the catchy title. Pretty good, but I don't see myself using it that much. I'm sure I'll find uses for it, but it would be a lot more useful if:
  1. I could put in a district BEN and see the information for all locations in that district. I know I can put in the list of entity numbers in the little box, but in the time it takes to do that, I'll go to a query in my own database and get much more useful numbers.
  2. "Funded" and "Eligible" didn't have the same green background. Knowing which years were funded is very important. If anything, make "Not requested" and "Eligible" have the dark green, and give the light green to "Funded." Even better, give "Funded" a nice mauve background.
  3. The browser "Back" button worked. (What does the SLD have against the "Back" button, anyway? All over the site, you try to go back and it just won't let you. ) At least it has "cookie crumb" navigation links above the table which allow you to go back to the previous screen.
  4. We could see more than 10 rows per screen. A minor nuisance for small districts, but a major pain for any large school district. And who would need a tool like this most? A large school district. But since they can't use the district BEN to pull up all locations, the tool is already hamstrung.
It's nice, though, to see the SLD put up a tool which is designed solely for applicant convenience and actually uses color and visual layout to convey information, rather than large blocks of impenetrable text. Now if they'd just gotten a visual design professional involved, maybe we'd have the mauve background. Can you tell I have a soft spot for mauve? Not the color, just the word.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

E-Rate important or unused

I just got an email from E-Rate Central with a link to a survey of ed tech done at the T+L conference this year. Of course I skimmed everything until I reached the E-Rate questions.

So how important is the E-Rate? Over 40% of the respondents said "very important." And that's why the E-Rate has survived 6 years of a hostile President and Congress; the typical Congressman would have to show real fortitude to cut a program that's helping so many kids in her/his district.

But more interesting: almost 20% of attendees said they don't apply. Understand, this is a technology conference. Luddite districts do not send teams. Any yet, among these tech-savvy districts, 20% don't apply. That is a shame. The process has to get easier. Either that or I need to improve my marketing efforts until On-Tech is managing the E-Rate for all those districts.

There was also a question about improving the E-Rate, and I was surprised to see that one-third of respondents thought sanctions against wrong-doers would improve the program. Real abuse of the program takes a tiny fraction of the funding, so if every ne'er-do-well was thrown in jail, we really wouldn't see any positive effect for the rest of us. I don't even think that the amount of fraud would go down: in most cases, the people who have been caught thought they had come up with a new scam that would work.

Also, I'm not in favor of punishing people who make mistakes, and then you have the difficulty of saying what's a mistake and what's a scam. Take the Ysleta case, where IBM and several school districts (including Ysleta) created a purchasing process that they thought complied with E-Rate rules, but allowed them to avoid the traditional competitive bidding process. I don't think the people involved thought they were scammers; they were just trying to do what was best for the district given the E-Rate's bad bidding rules. Yet looked at another way, districts colluded with a vendor to subvert the competitive bidding process. And since they got away with it one year before the SLD figured out what was going on, you could say they were repeat offenders. I think it would have been a shame for Ysleta or IBM to have suffered sanctions. So how can we draw the line?

The answer is, just the way it's being done: you get convicted of defrauding the program, you're out. I think debarments should last for 10 years or more, instead of the measly 3 years that's being handed out now. But I don't support a separate set of sanctions.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

We want BEAR notification letter diversity!

So how come 470 RALs, 471 RALs, FCDLs and 486 RALs are all multi-color (which I love), but Form 472 (BEAR) Notification Letters are all white? I'm sure the practical reason is the Billings and Disbursements is separate from the application side of the house, but couldn't they get together on this one thing? I mean, otherwise the letters look the same: impenetrable walls of monospaced text with no sense of design.