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MIA in PIA-No School Left Behind?

If PIA were like a “Where’s Waldo” book, and Waldo represented consistency, Waldo would never be found. Anywhere. On the pages.  Of the book. What seems to be missing from PIA is consistency; consistency in the line of questioning, consistency in the PIA reviewer program knowledge bank and consistency in the application of program rules. More often than not, program rules are misinterpreted, applied incorrectly or just plumb made up. One area in which we see a tremendous amount of inconsistency is in the correct application of discount percentages and NSLP data validation.

“You Down with NSLP? Yeah, You Know Me!”

NSLP data is the foundation upon which the E-rate home is built. As such, it is also the area most prone to scrutiny during PIA. However, the manner in which a particular PIA reviewer interprets the data varies from reviewer to reviewer.

Program rules dictate that school district applicants calculate the shared discount percentage by weighing the average discount of all schools within the district. The regulations also state that an applicant must use NSLP data from October 1st or later. Sounds simple enough, right? Well, in theory it is. Nevertheless, the problem becomes a question of the source of the information and the veracity of that information.  

Many PIA reviewers will request that an applicant provide the state NSLP data when validating a discount percentage. The trouble with that is that many times the information reported to the state is outdated and does not accurately reflect the NSLP data provided by the applicant. PIA reviewers will point out these discrepancies and force applicants to accept the changes, which often lead to a lowered shared discount percentage. There are no regulations anywhere that demand that an applicant must use the same data that is reported to the state for NSLP. Besides, the data reported to the state typically doesn’t include data for sites that don’t actually serve meals. This doesn’t mean that these sites aren’t educational facilities; it just means that they aren’t serving meals, so they have no meal data to provide.

Additionally, insofar as audits are concerned, we’ve seen many auditors just refuse to accept the state data because it isn’t coming directly from the applicant, despite having “passed muster” during PIA.  We’ve also seen auditors refuse to accept the original NSLP data reported if it does not match up with the state’s current data during the audit. USAC may adjust a school sites’ discount percentage due to a discrepancy with the state data or their inability to validate the status of a new site. Unfortunately, once PIA has made changes to an applicant’s data, whether the applicant has knowledge of the change or not, an applicant is put in the precarious position of defending their SLD adjusted data three to five years later during an audit. Since most auditors’ knowledge of E-rate is merely cursory, when the NSLP data from the application doesn’t match the state’s current data, the auditors will make a finding because an applicant did not purportedly save their required documentation. The real irony in all of this is that the applicants did retain their data; it just doesn’t align with the change of data made by USAC.

The real tragedy here isn’t so much the inconsistency of PIA reviewers, as most reviewers are fair, conscientious and intimately familiar with E-rate guidelines. For a government entitlement program, USAC does a good job of vetting potential PIA reviewers. The real chagrin is the misinterpretation of program rules and regulations by these third-party auditors. The FCC spends an exorbitant amount of money on audits each year. However, the “bang for your buck” factor is lackluster at best. I believe more emphasis needs to be placed on E-rate training for the auditors. Then perhaps they would be able to spend less time on site, drain less of the applicant’s precious resources and provide more thoughtful analysis.

“Raindrops on Roses and Discounts on School Sites”

Discount percentage validation in PIA is like a big bureaucratic game of telephone where the USAC program guidelines become more and more diluted with each passing PIA and where regulations are seemingly pulled out of thin air. Many reviewers have argued, despite there being no supporting E-rate program documentation to uphold their theory, that new charter schools can’t use the District discount percentage because they can’t discern where the students are coming from. Hence, they push applicants to accept an automatic 20% average for that site, even though E-rate program rules don’t distinguish between, say a new construction site and a new charter school, insofar as applying the District discount percentage. More incredulous is that these new charter schools are being knocked down to 20%, even though they provided enrollment data to the contrary! How does that make sense I ask you? Have I drifted into the “Bizarro Jerry” Seinfeld episode?

Applicants spend countless hours each year pouring over NSLP data, only to have a PIA reviewer swoop in and unfairly drop them down to 20%, even though they provided antipodal evidence? PIA is supposed to be an avenue for open dialogue between applicants and the SLD, to confirm and clarify application materials. Instead it has become a mini audit forum with PIA reviewers playing from different best practices play books. Again, I want to emphasize that there are some very good PIA reviewers. However, new reviewers that are being brought into the fold don’t quite yet understand the E-rate process and the implications of PIA requests.

“Three’s a Crowd”

One final word about discount percentage validation; alright, well three words…third-party verification. There are many PIA reviewers who insist on third-party verification of NSLP data, claiming that an applicant’s data could potentially be falsified by the applicant. Yet, the reviewers will not accept signed certification of the data by say, the Superintendant or Nutrition Services Coordinator. Wait a minute. Let’s look at that again. A self-certification program that doesn’t accept NSLP data that has been self-certified. How then does an applicant certify the data? And, who is this mysterious third-party anyway?  This “Deep Throat-esque” third-party owes applicants an explanation on this concept of self-certification-not-really-self-certification-let’s-hide-the-ball reasoning. One thing is certain, if PIA were like a “Where’s Waldo” book, and Waldo represented the FCC’s inconsistency of the application program guidelines, Waldo could still not be found.

Caution: Auditors at Work

A cautionary warning to applicants as you prepare for FY 2010: retain your NSLP and PIA request records, as you may never know when you will be audited and asked to retroactively validate data from years ago.

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