April 06, 2020

State’s schools, libraries seek deep discounts on phone costs> E-rates will help educational facilities spend more on technology

SULLIVAN — Thanks partly to donations from the Winter Harbor Navy base, Union 96 schools have a lot of computers — more than 100 at Sumner Memorial High School alone, where every department reports using the Internet for research, and most classrooms have Internet access.

But unlike books — the proverbial gift that can be opened again and again — using all those computers can cost money whenever a student logs on, not to mention the $40 a month just to have the modem line.

Starting this month, most schools and libraries across the state should start to receive discounts of 20 percent to 90 percent off their phone service, Internet use, cable and interactive television, and networks, which connect a group of computers to a single server.

According to the Department of Education, Maine school districts could save tens of thousands of dollars a year with these discounts, known as e-rates, short for education rates. The e-rate was created by an amendment, sponsored by Sens. Olympia Snowe and Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., to the Telecommunications Reform Act of 1996.

“It’s intended to free up money to spend on more technology,” said Union 96 Superintendent Harvey Kelley. “It’s not meant to be used to cut your budget.”

The money to reimburse phone companies or Internet providers for the discounts will come from a $2.25 billion Universal Service fund administered by the Federal Communications Commission. The fund is fed through surcharges imposed on telecommunication companies.

“[The amendment] came out of Senator Snowe’s concern that as we go toward an increasingly open market, we not bypass rural areas or schools, where the rates charged can often be prohibitively expensive,” said Dave Lackey, Snowe’s media secretary. “This is to allow states like Maine to be just as wired up as schools in New York City.”

The amount of the discount for each school depends on parents’ income level as determined by the number of students eligible for the free or reduced-price hot lunch program. If up to 19 percent of students are eligible, a rural school gets a 50 percent discount. At the other end of the sliding-scale formula, schools are given an e-rate of 90 percent off if at least three out of four of their students are eligible.

Kelley expects that Sumner Memorial High School will receive 50 percent off, while the grammar schools in Sullivan, Steuben, Gouldsboro and Winter Harbor may have 80 percent knocked off their phone bills. While Sumner and the grammar schools share the same geographic area and its corresponding income level, few high schoolers apply for the hot lunch program.

Public schools and libraries in Maine must write up a technology plan to be approved by the Department of Education before they apply for the e-rates. Over the past three months, more than 700 of Maine’s 740 public schools have submitted technology plans, which list computer resources and goals for the district.

“We’re hoping all schools are doing it because it’s available to everyone,” said Walter Taranko, media coordinator for the Department of Education. Taranko said the FCC should start accepting applications once their Web site is up, which he expects to happen by the end of the month.

This week, Union 96’s school boards have been reviewing the union’s technology plan before sending it to the DOE. The district wants to construct a Web site for the five schools, computerize the libraries and create an interlibrary loan system, start up a video production center and build a computer network to link the five schools.

A digital camera and a color scanner are on the wish list at Gouldsboro Grammar School, and Winter Harbor Grammar School is hoping to hire a full-time technology coordinator.

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