Educational CyberPlayGround ®

FirstGeeks -- NTA Briefing at the White House

History and the Future ( A perspective on why we need change!)
I hear a lot of guessing about what the intent was of universal service and E rate. From a group of educators, representatives of national professional educators, and trade associations , this was our intent.

FCC ALLOTS $2.25 BILLION TO WIRE LIBRARIES, SCHOOLS (Associated Press, 13 April 2000)
The FCC announced that it will provide full funding --$2.25 billion-- to the e-rate program this year. The e-rate program, now in its third year, wires U.S. schools, libraries, and communities for Internet access. The new funding means that about 1 million U.S. classrooms will be connected to the Internet, said Vice President Al Gore. The e-rate program generated more than 36,000 requests for funding this year, and FCC Chairman William Kennard says that although not all these requests will be met, the new funding will further the goal of eventually providing Internet access to every classroom in the nation.

2004 The national program that financed Atlanta's extravagance, called E-rate, won't pay for computers but helps schools pay for Internet infrastructure they might not otherwise be able to afford.
Because Atlanta lost E-rate funding the past two years, city taxpayers currently foot the bills to run it -- $7 million this year.

Anticipating a day when every student would have a laptop, APS in 1999 began wiring most schools for wireless Internet access, at a cost of at least $2 million. Because the cost of buying tens of thousands of laptops was prohibitive, however, the district largely abandoned the system about three years later in favor of a much cheaper alternative. Atlanta's spending on wireless technology, building for the future wasted money. Not True Read - What about Wireless? What about it?

The E-rate program gives schools up to $2.25 billion a year. Until recently, E-rate escaped extensive scrutiny. But abuses have prompted Congress and the Federal Communications Commission to take a closer look. Poor districts need contribute only 10 percent to 20 percent toward the cost of most E-rate projects, and until this year they could ask for as much money as they wanted. Rep. James C. Greenwood (R-Pa.), whose House subcommittee is investigating E-rate fraud elsewhere in the United States, said the problems reflected more than just growing pains for a huge new program. "If we weren't doing this investigation, there would be pigs at the trough for as long as this program's out there, and they would be stealing money, and they would be squandering money. See WIRED FOR WASTE / A SPECIAL REPORT -- A $73 million spending spree

We need to include wireless applications in the E-rate. We all have a better knowledge of this type of use, and the FCC should convene a study group which involves a knowledgenetwork of people to take a look at what is there, to give educators more information on wireless, and to create suggestions to send forward to the FCC. Some of the monies that have not been used could be used to convene a group of knowledgenetwork people to guide those of us who are new learners to the use of wireless in education, community centers, and other educational places.

The Digital Divide: A Survey of Information "Haves" and "Have Nots" in 1997

The recent rush to wire and connect American's schools and provide multimedia computers for classrooms across the land reinforces the need for professional development in the use of educational technology.

The problem is huge.

Dependence on a single source of information, typically a textbook, must give way to using a variety of information sources. As new technologies become more readily available and less expensive, they will likely serve as a catalyst for ensuring that new approaches to teaching gain a firm foothold in schools. Despite the technology changes in society, being a teacher in American schools too often consists of helping children and youth acquire information from textbooks and acting as an additional source of expertise. Teachers are provided role models of this approach to teaching from kindergarten through graduate school; their teacher education courses provide hints for making textbook-oriented instruction interesting and productive, and as teaching interns, they both observe and practice instruction based upon mastering information found in books. Teachers may be forgiven if they cling to old models of teaching that have served them well in the past. All of their formal instruction and role models were driven by traditional teaching practices. Breaking away from traditional approaches to instruction means taking risks and venturing into the unknown. But this is precisely what is needed at the present time.

WIRED FOR WASTE / A SPECIAL REPORT -- A $73 million spending spree

Atlanta schools overpaid for a lavish computer network that costs taxpayers millions more to run.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Published on: 05/22/04

Atlanta Public Schools misspent or mismanaged nearly $73 million from a national program intended to give poor children access to the Internet, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation has found. With virtually no limit on spending, Atlanta since 1998 has built one of the country's most lavish computer networks for schoolchildren. Much computer equipment bought by the Atlanta school district languishes in storage. Some gear bought with federal 'E-rate' funds has been stored up to three years. Atlanta asked E-rate to subsidize an additional $81 million in 2002, in part for still more upgrades. E-rate officials denied nearly all of the request after finding that the district wasn't making price the primary factor when awarding contracts.

Top district officials said they could not answer many questions about E-rate spending because key decisions were made before they came to work for the district.

Cast of SCHOOL DISTRICT "qualified professionals" in charge of technology - and why aren't they sued ??

1) School District former technology director, Arthur Scott, son of a former principal, who resigned last year to take a job with Decatur city schools. Scott and his staff declined to explain how prices were determined. WHAT UNIVERSITY UNDER GRADUATE OR GRADUATE DEGREES IN COMPUTER SCIENCE / TECHNOLOGY WERE HELD BY ARTHUR SCOTT? HOW WAS HE QUALIFIED TO BE IN CHARGE OF ANYTHING? WHAT QUALIFIED BEVERLY HALL TO HIRE HIM FOR THIS POSITION?

2) Beverly Hall, Atlanta's school superintendent since July 1999, 15 months after the first E-rate contracts were approved. "We needed to take advantage." Hall said the district had beefed up E-rate oversight. Atlanta last year obtained substantially lower prices after rebidding E-rate work, and adopted a procedure last month for banning vendors who don't deliver contracted services. These steps came only after federal regulators found the district wasn't bidding work properly and denied Atlanta's 2002 E-rate request.
3) Charles Engstrom, Atlanta's deputy superintendent of operations.
4) Thelma Malone, president of the Atlanta Council of PTAs.
5) School board Chairman Mike Holiman and school board members
6) Margaret Coleman, the district's chief financial officer.
7) Robert Beman, the district's chief information officer.
8) Toney Ward equipment manager

Atlanta says it needs $14 million a year -- three times the district's textbook budget -- just to run and maintain the network. At three Atlanta elementary schools, the cost of bringing high-speed Internet access to classrooms reached about $1 million. Suburban Forsyth County, by contrast, paid about $200,000 for the same result at much larger schools. The district spent money without requiring bids for the best price, with little oversight from school board members and few questions from check writers in Washington who subsidized the work.

Tracked E-rate spending in Atlanta found:

• APS repeatedly ordered equipment and upgrades that it did not need, often choosing the most expensive components on the market.

• Price played little role when APS chose vendors, so the district routinely paid them too much. Vendors charged widely different prices for similar equipment. Hundreds of invoices indicate full price when education discounts of up to 45 percent are common.

• APS often is not sure what it bought because invoices are vague, incomplete or inaccurate. In some cases, the newspaper found, the district received lower-grade cable than it had paid for, or did not get equipment that appeared to have been purchased.

One vendor told the Journal-Constitution he submitted proposals to E-rate that included goods and services that were never delivered, but said he provided Atlanta schools with other equipment and work of equal value. The district hired an investigator to look into the vendor's E-rate work after the newspaper showed officials the billing records. That inquiry is ongoing.

Major technology companies, stealing from US citizens

IBM Corp. brought Scott and his staff to North Carolina for a weekend retreat on Atlanta's technology needs. Cisco Systems, a manufacturer of network electronics, sponsored an E-rate seminar in Atlanta. BellSouth gave APS $45,000 to plan for technology in the classroom.

In April 1998, Atlanta gave BellSouth the task of developing a "cost-conscious strategy" to upgrade the district's network. Cabling work at individual schools went to five other vendors, including IBM and Lucent Technologies.

For a local match of $1.7 million, Scott told the school board, the district could get enough from E-rate to do more than $8 million in work.

The board did not vote on E-rate contracts again for five years. Contracts were automatically renewed.

During that time, Atlanta and E-rate paid vendors nearly $73 million, including $13 million in local matching funds. E-rate approved an additional $22 million, including $10 million that the program hasn't paid because of a paperwork error. Much of the remainder was never spent.

School board Chairman Mike Holiman said the board had some idea of how E-rate money was being spent but that details were left to school staff. "I would say that [E-rate] has been under the radar of the board," Holiman said.

Vendors played a crucial role in advising Scott on how to build and equip the network. Cisco engineers practically lived at APS in the early going, Scott said, mapping out the network. IBM, BellSouth and Lucent also helped with the design, he said.

But Scott said Atlanta used its own specifications, or advice from outside consultants, to decide precisely what the network needed. "We always took an independent stance, so we wouldn't have to rely on a vendor to tell us what we needed to do."

Scott said he envisioned a powerful network worthy of a Fortune 500 company. "We wanted a network where we could literally deliver instructional services anywhere, anytime, anyhow," he said.

With federal money flowing, the school system spared little expense.

Atlanta installed Cisco's top-of-the-line electronics -- the equipment that moves Internet traffic through cyberspace -- in every school, rather than in a limited number of regional hubs. Just one or two of the components could run an entire network; Atlanta ultimately bought more than 200 of them at $50,000 to $100,000 each.

The district laid miles of fiber-optic cable, the most expensive on the market, to many classrooms. But under Atlanta's network design, more affordable copper cable could have been used with no loss of speed.

APS even wired some schools twice, first with copper cable and a year later with fiber-optic cable and entirely new electronics. The resulting network produced more horsepower than that available to Georgia Tech students.

Scott said he briefed his superiors on the cost and capabilities of the network he was building. Scott's former supervisors said they understood the network's general characteristics, but let Scott decide what equipment and services to buy.

Hall, the superintendent, said she focused on classroom instruction during her first years in office, leaving E-rate management to others. "It was not my priority at that time to begin getting into the bowels of what was going on," she said.

APS launched its most costly upgrade in 2001 at middle and high schools. For a price of $7.3 million, BellSouth installed a new network backbone using the fastest technology on the market. This "gigabit ethernet" system boosted capacity tenfold.

The expansion wasn't made out of necessity. The schools' existing system easily handled Internet traffic.

But school officials, looking years down the road, wanted a system that could carry telephone calls over the computer network and provide streaming video to every classroom computer.

BellSouth told APS it could sharply reduce telephone bills in the long run by merging data, voice and video traffic on one network.

In 2002, however, Scott urged management to slow down plans for a second phase extending the gigabit network to elementary schools. E-rate had refused to pay a $2.7 million bill from BellSouth because of a paperwork error. Scott advised against moving ahead with the upgrade until the debt was paid.

Scott warned that the district could be on the hook for the full cost of operating and maintaining the new network if the school district lost E-rate funding.

In an interview, Scott said he also did not believe children in elementary schools needed the advanced technology that the new network would make possible.

BellSouth appealed directly to Hall and Robert Beman, then the district's chief information officer. Hall said she signed the $9.2 million contract for the elementary schools at Beman's urging.

"He felt this was the wave of the future and we were to take advantage of E-rate to do that," said Hall.

But the promised benefits of the gigantic data pipeline to Atlanta students remain largely untapped.

Widespread use of futuristic educational tools, such as streaming video and real-time instruction over the Internet, is still years away.

When they use it, APS students still surf the Internet at roughly the same speed as in 1999, before the gigabit upgrade. In a 2002 survey, three of four kids said they used computers less than an hour a day in Atlanta's classrooms, or not at all.

School officials are also still waiting for the anticipated savings on telephone bills because the Internet-based phone system remains on the wish list. Meanwhile, with the higher-speed network, BellSouth's monthly charge to bring data to schools has skyrocketed, from $185 a school in 2000 to more than $2,000 today.

In 2003, without E-rate funding, APS allowed all but a few of its computer maintenance contracts to lapse rather than pay the $3.8 million cost to service tens of millions of dollars' worth of equipment.

Lack of competition

School officials' relationship with E-rate vendors drove up costs even more. Vendors did not compete against one another to offer the best price; APS simply divided the work among them. Scott said he made the process more competitive by bringing in more contractors. But records do not show that officials ever questioned vendors' prices.

One vendor,MCSC R. Clay Harris, president and CEO of Multimedia Communication Services Corp., charged rates several times higher than market price to connect computers to the network -- up to $400 for each copper cable connection and up to $1,000 for fiber. When Atlanta finally rebid cabling work last year, the winning vendor offered $80 per copper connection and $325 for fiber. Records show the district paid other vendors at the time as little as $125 per connection. Yet most of the cabling business went to Harris.

Atlanta also paid another company owned by Harris to install connections at schools where E-rate had already paid for computer cabling. Harris said the payments -- totaling more than $1 million in local funds -- were for additional connections in areas such as offices that E-rate would not pay for. But E-rate program administrators said the funding would have covered most if not all of those costs.

Invoices and price quotations raise questions about whether another vendor charged APS full price for Cisco equipment, a practice almost unheard of in the industry. Steep discounts are easy for school districts to get.

In 2000, billing records show, Atlanta DataCom, also known as ADCom, sold Atlanta schools $9.5 million in Cisco equipment with no discount. Cisco, the manufacturer, said it gave discounts of more than 30 percent to resellers such as ADCom.

When Atlanta rebid E-rate work last year, ADCom offered a 38 percent discount on Cisco equipment.

An attorney for the company said the undiscounted prices charged in 2000 included additional "bundled services" in an effort "to simplify billing." These bundled services were not itemized on invoices. ADCom officials declined to be interviewed or to provide documentation of the additional items.

The district also worked the system to maximize E-rate reimbursement.

For example, Atlanta asked E-rate to pay the same $231,250 price for equipment at every school -- even though school buildings varied drastically in size. Auditors for E-rate noted in 2002 that the practice had allowed APS to overbill E-rate $644,728. The issue was resolved by allowing APS to purchase more equipment with the money.

Scott said he routinely asked E-rate for more than he actually needed because federal regulators sometimes reduced the amounts arbitrarily before approving them. "You always ask for more than you need in hopes of getting what you want," Scott said.

Getting money for schools that were scheduled to be closed also increased Atlanta's take from E-rate. The district billed the program $5.5 million for work at schools that later closed or were demolished. In May 2000, Atlanta took delivery of $92,870 in Cisco electronics for Campbell Elementary. Two weeks later, the school closed. The equipment was shipped to storage.

Superintendent Hall and other senior APS officials defend the practice on the grounds that schools sometimes escaped closure at the last minute. They also said they felt obliged to treat all schools equally.

Incomplete records

Just how and where Atlanta spent much of its E-rate money is difficult to determine because some vendors submitted vague invoices. Others did not specify quantities or unit prices of items they installed.

In many instances, records raise questions about whether the district got what it paid for. One vendor invoiced for a top grade of Lucent cable, but Journal-Constitution reporters saw a lower-grade cable installed. The same vendor, NetVersant Solutions, charged $718,000 in 2001 for wiring done in 38 data closets, which contain key network components, but those schools have only 18 closets, records show.

William Fiedler, NetVersant's general counsel, said APS provided the company with the number of closets at each school. NetVersant provided full value to the district, but some work billed for data closets was actually done at the district's main data center, not the schools, he said.

"There is nothing our company did that wasn't at the express direction of the public schools," Fiedler said.

APS billed E-rate for $3 million worth of e-mail and communications servers in 2001 but cannot say how many servers were received. In fact, district officials said they stopped installing e-mail servers in schools several years earlier.

MCSC's Harris said his E-rate funding proposals, which included the servers, were simply a menu of equipment and services that he offered. If some items weren't needed at a school, the money was spent on other items that would qualify for E-rate funding, he said.

E-rate administrators in Washington, however, said funding proposals must match work vendors do. Any changes would have required approval. They said APS never sought change orders.

The school district is now investigating E-rate work involving MCSC.

Tiny Arkwright Elementary illustrates how little E-rate work can actually be accounted for.

Hidden on a quiet street in southwest Atlanta, Arkwright has been on the chopping block for closing since 1995. The school board voted in 2000 to shutter the school. Last week, children left the building for the last time.

Since 1999, Atlanta has received $545,000 in E-rate money for network technology at Arkwright. Today it's hard to see where the money went. Because Arkwright was due to close, the district installed bare-bones electronics and wired most of the school with lower-cost copper cable rather than high-priced fiber-optic.

In 2002 alone, Atlanta billed for $278,250 for unspecified "connection materials" and two servers at Arkwright, based on MCSC's funding proposal. The amount included $52,500 for 44 classroom switches, even though the school needed only 20 for its 20 classrooms.

Trying to reconstruct what that money paid for, however, would be a "waste of time," Harris said, since his paperwork did not reflect the actual work performed.

Harris, a former accountant, said his company did other work, including work at APS' main data center, that was not itemized on invoices submitted to APS and E-rate.

Even so, MCSC billed for the exact amount originally proposed on his paperwork, a total of $12.5 million in 2002 at 49 schools.

Scott, who signed Harris' invoices, said he followed APS and E-rate policies. "The work that was submitted was the work that was done," he said.

After the Journal-Constitution raised questions about equipment purchases, school officials began to inventory what they had.

The newspaper found several million dollars' worth locked up in two storage facilities. At one location, mothballed Cisco electronics worth about $2 million were resting haphazardly on the bare cement floor. At another site, electronics worth $1.4 million or more sat unopened in large stockpiles around the room.

Some equipment was 3 years old, despite federal rules that equipment must be installed the year purchased.

Boxes of Cisco equipment worth more than $400,000 were designated for a school that already had the gear. Expensive switching components were stacked like phone books against one wall. Other equipment lay strewn around the floor or piled in heaps.

Asked why Atlanta might have purchased so much in idle electronics, equipment manager Toney Ward shrugged. "Maybe because of the availability of funding," Ward said, "they decided, 'Let's go ahead and do it.' "