Oct 15 2021

Should K–12 Schools Be Hesitant to Spend Federal Funds?

Districts unfamiliar with government funding may be intimidated. Understanding the process and tracking spending will allow them to budget confidently.

K–12 schools are seeing a wealth of federal funding in response to the pandemic, yet in some cases — such as with the latest round of Emergency Connectivity Fund (ECF) support — this money is going unclaimed. Of the ECF’s available $7.17 billion, more than $2 billion remained after the first application window closed. This prompted the Federal Communications Commission to open a second window for applications and encourage schools and libraries to apply.

There are many theories about why money was left on the table after the first round of applications came in. Programs like E-rate have been around for 20 years, but the funding available to schools now is new. It’s open to all districts eligible for E-rate program support, including those that aren’t current E-rate participants and those that haven’t applied for E-rate in the past. Because of this, districts may hesitate to go after the available funds — not because they aren’t needed, but because K–12 leaders aren’t confident about application processes.

Here’s what administrators need to know to confidently obtain and spend the flood of federal funding coming their way.

Make a Plan and Understand the Deadlines for Funding

When considering any type of federal funding for school purchases, it’s important to plan — particularly for E-rate, which runs on a five-year cycle. Because of this, school districts should make five-year plans for spending those funds.

For the more recently available government funding, districts should be aware of the spending requirements and deadlines. Some funding streams require districts to have devices available to students by a certain date. ECF is one of these, and to qualify, districts must receive the equipment no later than June 30, 2022. Being aware of this deadline is crucial, especially with many products still arriving late because of supply chain delays.

Knowing the limitations on certain types of funding can make it easier to budget for their incorporation. For example, because ECF funding must be spent on off-campus uses, it doesn’t make sense to try to use these funds for classroom access points. However, there are other government funds to help districts make that type of purchase.

LEARN MORE: Discover four ways schools can use relief funds to improve learning continuity.

One consideration for schools with regards to ECF is where students will be using their devices. Although many students are back in classrooms this year, ECF may still be applicable. As long as the school has a policy in place saying students may take their devices home to complete work, administrators should still apply for ECF. Making a business plan will help leaders when applying and when they face audits in the future.

Decide the Best Option for Invoicing Purchases

For school leaders who have used E-rate funding in the past, they’ll find the process for ECF very similar. The FCC is responsible for both programs, and Universal Service Administration Company administers the funding for both E-rate and ECF. Because of this, the invoicing options for ECF will be the same as those for E-rate.

For teams unfamiliar with E-rate and its invoicing options, there are two ways schools can use these funds to make their technology purchases. The first is the Billed Applicant Entity Reimbursement, or BEAR, method of invoicing. Using this method, the district can purchase all the equipment, pay the vendor and then request reimbursement.

The second option — which is only available through some vendors, like CDW•G — is the Service Provider Invoice form, also known as SPI. With SPI, the service provider will only bill schools for the nonfunded share and will invoice USAC for the rest.

To Spend Funds Confidently, Prepare for Audits

The last consideration for schools is the federal funding auditing process. Though the term “audit” may make school leaders wary, it doesn’t mean that districts are doing anything wrong. It also shouldn’t scare applicants away.

Schools and libraries that use ECF funding will likely be audited because the government wants to audit the program. Having a business plan for purchases and keeping careful records will help district leaders be prepared for these audits.

MORE ON EDTECH: Don't make these common oversights when purchasing one-to-one devices. 

Schools can keep records of purchases in any format, but the safest way is to have hard copies of important information so nothing can be lost in the event of a technical failure. This record can include everything from invoices to emails, and it should be kept for up to 13 years for ECF. For E-rate, schools should keep records for 15 to 17 years. These programs require keeping records for 10 years following the final date of service.

District leaders should be sure they also understand what paperwork their states require. The federal government makes minimum requirements, and states can add stipulations to those. As long as districts have all the necessary records and are able to provide them quickly when audited, there is no reason to hesitate in applying for or spending government funds.

This article is part of the “ConnectIT: Bridging the Gap Between Education and Technology” series. Please join the discussion on Twitter by using the #ConnectIT hashtag.

[title]Connect IT: Bridging the Gap Between Education and Technology

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