Funds For Learning is recognizing our E-rate Guides on their anniversary, giving them the opportunity to reflect on the past year and knowledge of the industry. This week, let us introduce you to Sean Lock, Compliance Manager.
Sean Lock's anniversary with Funds For Learning is September 17.
What E-rate advice would you give to someone starting in E-rate, demonstrate why is it good advice, and what should applicants do to act on your advice.
The nuances of the program are ever changing and it is by no means simple. You truly need someone to oversee and manage the process to be successful. However, don’t do it by yourself. There is more that goes into E-rate than just filing forms. Depending on the size of your school or district, you may have to engage with several different departments (i.e. accounting and procurement) to make it all work. A coordinated effort helps keep everyone on the same page and helps with accountability as well.  You’ve heard the saying, “It takes a village…” and E-rate is no different. Like filing your taxes, some people can do just fine on their own, but more times than not, they need a professional to handle it and give that assurance that things are not only done correctly, but that you are maximizing your return.
If you have been here 5+ years, you have seen some big changes to the program. How has the program changed? Of the aspects of the program that haven’t changed, what, if anything, do you feel should receive further consideration? Of the changes, can you pick one that has had the biggest impact on the program and discuss its importance and implications on the program on a client and program level?
Over the years the program has shifted its focus to the implementation and utilization of broadband services. The goal is no longer just to receive discounts on your phone bills, but to connect every student at every school to the internet. E-rate is seen as a means to do that by providing cost savings on higher bandwidth solutions that may otherwise be unattainable. Overall, the underlining premise of the program remains the same and that is to provide discounts/funding to schools for services they receive and utilize daily for educational purposes. With the modernization of the E-rate Program available funding for applicants is at its highest level in history (>$4 billion annually) and more applicants have the opportunity to apply for both Category-one and Category-two services. In the years prior to the modernization, only those with the highest need could fully participate and even then there was no guarantee that there would be enough funds to go around. This change hasn’t come at a cost though. The administration of the program is more difficult than ever. While the modernization had the intent of streamlining and simplifying the process, it certainly hasn’t been the case. With more funding came the implementation of the C2 Budget Program. Replacing the old 2-in-5 Rule, the C2 Budget being applied at the school level has disrupted the entire E-rate process. When applying for C2 Services, everything must fit within the cap. At a high level, this makes since, but at an administrative level it is a nightmare. Projects and funding are delayed because of this cap, not to mention that cost of services are not accurately portrayed and applied for on applications. There are certainly simpler solutions to accomplishing the C2 goals of the program, let’s just hope that the changes forthcoming for the 2020 Funding Year will address some of these issues. 
You work with many different schools across the country. Discuss the variety of clients you work with (e.g. What is the enrollment of the smallest? Largest? Charters, private, public, districts, etc.) Do applicants of different sizes manage the process differently? Are their unique challenges for different sized applicants? How does your job vary for different school sizes?
The structure of the clientele that I have worked with over the years has changed about as much as the E-rate Program itself. Currently I work school districts across the country whose enrollment may be less than 2,000 students to ones in excess of 200K students. The average is probably around 45K. But it’s not only schools; city and state library systems are also becoming more prevalent in the portfolio. The underlining premise of the program for each one is the same, file on time, meet the deadlines, maintain compliance and realize the benefits of the program. How they go about doing that can and is very different. As mentioned before, the village you need around you to ensure success in the program varies by the size of your organization. The more dynamic your structure is the more dynamic it may be to properly administer the program. Larger districts usually have to coordinate across multiple departments, especially in the procurement and application phases to make sure they’re not only in compliance with E-rate, but they’re state and local laws as well. Those in smaller school district, often wear multiple hats within the district, where E-rate is something they’re simply tagged with doing. My role, regardless of their size, is to make things go as smooth as possible, meet their needs and keep them on the road to success. One thing I never want to see is an applicant have to give money back to the program, because something went wrong. You worked hard for that funding and I aim to make sure you keep it! 

Humanize the E-rate program. Without being too specific, describe a real situation that you have seen. For example, E-rate dollars helped wire a new middle school, or a small private school got a desperately needed reimbursement check. 
A few years back we were invited to witness first hand one of our clients who became an Apple Distinguished School. The innovation and leadership it took for the school to reach this designation was made possible in part by the E-rate Program. One of the recognition requirements is to demonstrate the ability to role and support a one-to one program. In order to support this initiative the district had utilized E-rate over the years to increase the needed bandwidth to the district and upgrade the school’s network infrastructure to support each students ability to wirelessly connect to the internet. In speaking with the IT Director at the event, he said, “Having a great IT Infrastructure in place was one of the biggest keys and obstacles that had to be met before implementing such a project”. If a solid network was not in place the teachers and students would have collectively “timed-out”. “Using resources such as Funds For Learning and the E-rate Program helped create what you see today.”