Experts provide a fiscal walk-through for school leaders looking to the future.
GUEST COLUMN | by Paula Love and Beverly Sutherland
As we welcome students and teachers back to school, many leaders face fiscal challenges for needed resources. While juggling precious funds, the technology era of the future is descending on our schools at record speed. Virtual reality, maker spaces, artificial intelligence, and other innovative technology learning strategies vie for a “piece of the pie.” Let’s consider three ways to be fund-ready to address the movements of change.
Leverage the Dollars
Many federal grants allow funds to support digital learning. The Every Student Succeeds Act provides schools flexibility to tailor investments based on the needs of their unique student populations. Throughout the formula grants of Titles I through IV and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), funds can be leveraged for technology that improves instruction and student outcomes. 
Although formula dollars enable projects to sustain, look to competitive grants to “sweeten the pie.” Keep a watchful eye on funds from various sources such as the U.S. Department of Education, U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Science Foundation and many foundations and corporations that contribute to technology advances.
Coordinate the Right Financial Opportunities
Knowing how to leverage the dollars is critical, but coordination is essential to maximize the impact of all the funding obtained. The benefit of winning grants can ruin the pie if not strategically aligned to the goals of the school or district.
A major fund to significantly increase access by building robust technological infrastructures comes from the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) E-Rate Program. For more than two decades, E-rate funds have made technology more affordable to schools (and libraries). With nearly $4 billion annually, schools have been able to keep pace with the unprecedented transformation of digital learning.
From the explosion of mobile devices to coding/STEAM classes and AR/VR curriculum, there are increasingly high demands for schools to be equipped with sufficient broadband internet access and reliable Wi-Fi while simultaneously keeping networks secure so students can learn without interruption.
Most components to support a modernized infrastructure are eligible for E-rate funding through program discounts. The discounts are determined by the percentage of students eligible for the National School Lunch Program and can range from 20% to 90% depending on the category of service and the rurality of a school. Monthly expenses for high-speed Internet access, costs associated with the purchase, and installation of network equipment and cabling are covered, too.
‘Most components to support a modernized infrastructure are eligible for E-rate funding through program discounts. The discounts are determined by the percentage of students eligible for the National School Lunch Program and can range from 20% to 90% depending on the category of service and the rurality of a school. Monthly expenses for high-speed Internet access, costs associated with the purchase, and installation of network equipment and cabling are covered, too.’
Though most schools are eligible, many are challenged by the onerous application deadlines and knowing how to strategically align E-rate dollars with other funding resources. The good news is through careful planning combined with the use of the variety of industry resources available, organizations can build the robust network environments needed to prepare students for 21st century learning expectations and skills needed to thrive in the digital economy.
Manage the Monies
Often when the funding is received, schools have limited resources to manage the deployment of equipment and services. Organizations are confronted by the comprehensive compliance and reporting requirements often attached to the funding. The FCC, for example, requires E-rate documents be retained for a period of 10-years after the last date of service. These hurdles can be successfully overcome, and funding opportunities maximized, through careful planning and use of well-established best practices.
Resources often need to be managed from multiple vendors and departments, while also planning to minimize disruption of school operations. The summer months are optimal times to schedule major upgrades however critical needs and grant funding timelines often dictate when projects start. Many of the typical pitfalls of technology deployments can be avoided with careful planning.
The administration of funding from multiple sources can be burdensome and have severe consequences if not planned as a fore-thought. Each agency has its own requirements that govern how funding is reported. Awards through the Department of Justice, for example, require quarterly Progress and Financial reports.
E-rate requires schools retain evidence of the vendor selection process and to tracking vendor invoices and payments for funding received. Routinely monitoring technology’s impact on student learning as well as school operations is not only a best practice but is required by many grant funds.
Thankfully, with a well-designed documentation retention policy and the implementation of best practices, most organizations can avoid the inefficiencies and penalties that can arise from non-compliance.
As summer winds down and the new school year begins, we want you to become funding prepared by pursing the right opportunities for your technology needs, determining fiscal coordination, and managing the deployment of resources. Your school community can experience the benefits of digital learning and be able to enjoy the pie!
Dr. Paula Love, President of RFPMatch.com, is known as the Funding Doctor. RFPMatch.com provides funding insights to education solution providers through RFPMatchOnDemand.com and to educators and community leaders through GrantsAlert.com
Beverly Sutherland, Certified E-rate Management Professional, is President of EdTechnologyFunds, Inc. Through a robust platform, http://eratedocx.com, she believes that E-rate becomes a user-friendly experience from the pursuit of dollars through the management.
Front image: (l-r) Beverly Sutherland with Dr. Paula Love.