Oct 12 2006

Funding the Future

Funding in Jeopardy

From federal grants to local partnerships, schools nationwide are finding ways to offset budget shortfalls.


DESPITE THE NATIONAL CONCERN TO “LEAVE NO CHILD BEHIND,” STATE BUDGET CUTS AND FEDERAL shortfalls are putting many technology programs in jeopardy. Technology directors nationwide are left with little or no funding for the coming year and are now scrambling to find ways to stretch their budgets and maintain what they already have. School districts are feeling a pinch, but most are finding ways to keep the increasingly valuable technology programs alive in their schools.

After 23 years of working for the Delano Joint Union High School District, Bonnie Armendariz is familiar with financial challenges. As IT Director, she always has struggled to ensure there was enough money to develop and maintain the technology level that her superintendent, Sherrill Hufnagel, wanted to implement. In 1986, this low-income, central California district started with 25 computers, and today it has more than 1,200 computers in both the elementary and high schools.

Click HereThe district built its first LAN in 1994 and has used California’s Digital High School program, Title 1 grants, technology grants and federal E-rate funds to support technology advancements. Government funding assistance will be instrumental to the district’s upcoming implementation of Voice Over IP. In the fall, a new high school will open with another 500 computers installed. But the funds are drying up: the Digital High School program was cancelled. It provided more than $1 million for teacher training and classroom computers and augmented the E-rate funding, which covers infrastructure only.

“The Digital High School project provided approximately $37 per student for technology. Then the funding was cut,” Armendariz says. So Delano School District has had to stretch the benefits from federal funding programs wherever possible. “It’s important when applying for funds that you maintain focus on what you want to accomplish and not limit yourself,” she says.

Armendariz and Hufnagel have focused on Title 1 and E-rate, both federally-funded programs that support technology development for low-income schools. At Delano High School, most of the 3,300 students are of Hispanic or Filipino origin, and many score low on statewide tests. Introducing technology into the classroom has proven to be a great advantage: it affords these students an opportunity to develop the computer skills necessary to succeed and graduate, many with their sights set on higher education.

“We use funding allocated from general funds, Title 1 programs and grants for special projects,” Armendariz says. “But you need continued support from the Board of Trustees and school administrators in order to continue advancement in technology. Our superintendent is very pro-technology.”

E-rate, the Schools and Libraries Universal Service support mechanism, assists most schools and libraries in the United States to obtain affordable telecommunications and Internet access. However, the initiative subsidizes costs for technology infrastructure only, such as connectivity. It does not cover end-user equipment, such as computers for students, software or professional development and training costs.

Three service categories are funded through E-rate: telecommunications services, Internet access, and internal connections. Discounts range from 20 to 90 percent of the costs of eligible services, depending on the level of poverty and the urban or rural status of the population served. Eligible schools, school districts, and libraries apply individually or as part of a consortium. “We applied for funding and were given a discounted rate. So, the district only pays a small percentage for technology; federal funds cover up to 90 percent,” she says. For example: a Cisco router for the LAN cost $3.2 million and Delano only paid 10 percent of the overall cost.

E-rate is one of four support mechanisms funded through a Universal Service fee charged to companies that provide interstate and/or international telecommunications services. The Universal Service Administration Company (USAC) administers the Universal Service Fund at the direction of the Federal Communications Commission; USAC’s Schools and Libraries Division (SLD) administers the E-rate.

Caught in the Middle

Although E-rate funds are available each year, the application process can be daunting and does not benefit those school districts that fall somewhere in the middle: not low-income enough to qualify for the support, and yet not wealthy enough to support the system on its own. That’s the case in Tyler, Texas, where the benefits of E-rate are minimal for the 17,100 students in the district.

E-rate helped somewhat, but not much, according to John Orbaugh, director of technology in the Tyler Independent School District (ISD). “The campuses’ telephone bills are handled by E-rate, but the school district’s percentage is too low to qualify for the highest discount rate.” According to the formula applied by the SLD, Tyler ISD qualifies for 64 percent funding so it wouldn’t qualify to receive as much as Delano High School, for example. Consequently, Orbaugh says his district doesn’t bother asking for it. “The [application] process is unwieldy because you are required to plan a year and one half ahead of time, long before you know if you can even implement the plan,” he says. “E-rate was developed by those without a basis in the reality of how school districts actually work.”

But with 4,000 computers throughout the school district and a tech staff of 30 people including trainers, technology professionals, and programmers, Orbaugh has found ways to develop a technology program using both state and Federal funds. Tyler ISD received a large grant from Technology Applications Readiness Grants for Empowering Texas (TARGET) to fund the “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB). Nationwide, TARGET gave states $800,000 to $900,000 per year for three years in block grants. TARGET grants began in January 2003 and focus mainly on serving high-need students by accelerating funds at the local level. These grants support the current NCLB efforts by making the money available to the states. The TARGET grant also assists schools where E-rate leaves off, and it covers equipment and software.

Tyler ISD received $885,938 in May, which is being used to develop a teacher training program and provide equipment for science classes, such as probes and notebooks for teachers to use for lab experiments and field trips. Tyler ISD also received money from Texas’ TIF Grant, which supports a technology infrastructure program with $1.2 million in grants for wiring and networking but provides only limited computer software. The TIF Grant program, however, is being eliminated this year.

“Texas is coping with some uncertainty,” Orbaugh says. “The state legislature is now determining how to change the funding formula based on property values so that the wealthier schools are losing money to the poorer schools.”

Another state-funded technology grant is Title 2 D, which provides $220,000 per year, but requires the money be spent in specific areas. For example, 25 percent of the funds must be spent specifically on training, according to Orbaugh.

Keeping up with changes and upgrades in technology is enough of a challenge without having to chase the money as well. Yet, most technology directors at the school district level must do both. According to Orbaugh, Tyler ISD had a grant coordinator who managed and researched all grants and funding opportunities but, ironically, that position was eliminated during the last round of cuts and layoffs.

How does he manage? “There are many sources of financing, but most are not enough to implement new programs,” he says. Orbaugh is looking to develop a distance-learning program as well as a coordinated technology system where software is deployed district-wide. “Some [grants] are for as little as $1,000, which won’t get you very far if you need to support district-wide applications or upgrade the network.”

Partnering with the Community

One of the creative ways that school districts cope with less funding is to develop key partnerships within the community, according to Colonel Burt Bershon, founder and director of development at the Sarasota Military Academy (SMA), in Sarasota, Florida. The charter school was funded with $900,000 in government start-up grants, DOE/district funding through full-time equivalents and capital money. The budget has now grown to $2.6 million. Slighly less than $100,000 came from private money. Partnerships within the community allowed the school to offer an aviation program along with sailing, crew and other activities. “Community involvement is key in partnerships as well as volunteerism from parents in the community,” says Bershon.

Partnerships come in all kinds of packages and can benefit public school districts, as well as private schools, notes Armendariz. In Delano County, Armendariz and her staff developed a partnership with Cisco Academy, which involved placing a Cisco instructor at school to teach students how to become Cisco engineers.

Similarly, the local cable provider in Tyler is negotiating with the city and the ISD to install fiber-optic connections throughout the city and share those connections with all campuses in the district, as well as the University of Texas. This $5-million project would not be possible for the school district without community support. “It will likely come to fruition in a couple of months,” Orbaugh says.

Sharing resources, equipment, and services also can help in a budget crunch. The Supernet consortium in Tyler brings various educational entities together to share Internet service. For example, Tyler and the other members of the consortium share 12 Mbytes. This partnership allowed Tyler to offer a high school physics class to a smaller school district 20 miles away and dual credit courses from local community colleges to students in high school.

Even with those partnerships in place, maintaining technology programs is difficult because schools must keep existing programs running smoothly despite the shortfalls. “The upcoming year will be tough with limited funding,” Armendariz says. “But, because 80 percent of the computers are brand new and came with three-year warranties, we should be okay for now,” she says. Delano County also is receiving some back funds from E-rate because of “an approved appeal,” which will help get them through the year. But Armendariz cautions: “You should never assume that the money is always going to be there.”

The key to keeping programs going at Tyler ISD is setting priorities carefully, according to Orbaugh. “You need to examine what each program is going to do to improve student performance; if it’s not core, it won’t happen.”

Tyler ISD saves about $7,000 each year by supporting and maintaining its own equipment with certified staff. The computer manufacturers reimburse the school for providing its own maintenance. “It’s not much, but it helps,” Orbaugh comments.

The distance-learning program that Orbaugh wants to implement could help Tyler ISD’s budget during these difficult times. The school district needs, but cannot afford to hire, 18 foreign language teachers, one for each of its elementary schools. But with computer-based distance learning, Tyler ISD gains access to the teachers it needs, provides foreign language programs to students and does not add 18 teachers to its payroll.

With diligence and perseverance, there are real ways to ensure no children are left behind.