Note for every Superintendent & School Board: The force has awakened!!

As a Star Wars fan, like most people, I look forward to the new movie that will hit our screens in December. Preparing for it means dusting off the old movies and introducing them to our children so that they get as excited as we are. The anticipation for the opening weekend is heading to supernova… for me anyway!!

Also, December will be a busy month for many K-12 school districts that are looking to fine tune their plans to fund internal network projects through the modernized eRate funding system in 2016. Many Form 470s (the form that indicates a need and a desire to use eRate funds) will be hitting the streets in readiness of the eRate Form 471 window which will open in 2016. Some will be applying for the first time, some will be reapplying after missing out in 2015, and some will be completing the rest of their project plans for the next five years as a top priority.

What is the link between Star Wars and eRate?

The truth is that in 2015 something big changed the way K-12 schools share eRate information. This new era of open book commerce is smart and welcomed by many. However, it also highlights a major problem which is a major discovery. A situation that can only be solved by superintendents and school boards who understand what this change means.  That discovery is the new ITEM 21 section of every Form 471(the form which tells USAC what the school is buying) which is now more detailed than ever, and drills down into the hardware and the price paid. This level of intelligence is powerful, and it’s the first time everyone is able to “use this force.”

ITEM 21 is “the Force”!

That’s right, I called it a force. You see, the information from eRate 2015 is eye opening on several levels. From a technical point of view, it shows the type of direction chosen by each school at a national level, a state level and district level, and from the financial direction, it shows exactly what was paid and for what. It is a force because we can all use this to help with future decisions involving eRate funding, but also in terms of any IT purchase in K-12 school future.

Yes, a school (regardless of eRate or not) can use it to check surrounding schools, check the validity, cost and version of their equipment. A vendor can look at competition, make sure they are “in the ball park” and fine tune future projects. No one has ever had this much information. This is unique. We have never had this ability in the past to analyze this information so deeply; it is very powerful.

Will you use the Force for good or evil?

Like in Star Wars, this force can be used for good, but also for dark purposes. It depends if you are on the empire or the rebel side which way it looks to you!  In my case, a devotee rebel, I have to bring this to your attention as a sense of duty. Especially to all the schools who have recently had to let teachers go after labor day because of missed student budget set.

You see, eRate information has shown that we do have a financial problem in U.S. schools, and it’s a problem that is severely overlooked. It is only now that we have this ITEM 21 data from 2015, that we can see the scale of this dilemma and know how to fix it.

Your dilemma – is spending lots of money for the leading brand worth it?

Too many schools are buying at the high-end of the market.  When you analyze the state to state ITEM 21 data, it points to an epidemic towards buying the TOP BRAND, LEADING MANUFACTURER for the equipment.

Let me quickly say that there is nothing wrong with this approach. The products are top quality and absolutely are able to deliver the schools’ requirements. However, the rest of the vendors are significantly lower in cost, and pretty much all match the requirements.  

I did a little “simple math” to prove this. I took the eRate FORM 471 & ITEM 21 information and took 29 of the U.S. states as a sample. I averaged the money spent by K-12 schools on the TOP VENDOR, and on the REST OF THE WLAN & LAN VENDORS. The difference was measured in an average U.S. teacher’s salary of $44,000.

Table produced by combining FORM 471 reports available at https://slweb.universalservice.org/form471publicdatatool/app/#/

To be honest, some differences where huge!!  

Save a teacher or two or more

To try to be fair and not make this a witch hunt, I decided to remove the OUTLIERS – those very large eRate requests that swell the number. This was to allow for those big school districts that have large eRate projects so that it made it a more consistent sample. This would reduce the average difference per school to a more realistic amount, one that as a guideline could show if there was real savings on buying mainstream brands rather than top line. The result was only four out of 29 states had a minimal difference. And, that 26 out of 29 states spend anywhere between one teacher and seven teacher salaries difference by choosing the premium brand solution.

Potentially if those schools had chosen ANY other vendor, one that met the eligible services requirements dictated by USAC, they could have saved a teacher or more in the process from their out of pocket budget.

Can you trust a non-premium vendor?

The IT market has matured over the last 25 years, and those “other” vendors are all reputable manufacturers. So why do so many schools look to the PREMIUM vendor?  I mean, where else in K-12 procurement are we buying the PREMIUM, TOP OF THE LINE BRAND for anything?  Nowhere else.

We are not kitting out our school dinning areas with Viking gas burners, buying air conditioned Mercedes Benz buses for student transportation or paying full price for classroom furniture!  So from the ERATE ITEM 21 information we have learned an important fact. It’s okay for LAN and WLAN equipment to be the most expensive brand.

In truth, no one in IT is doing anything wrong, and you can’t blame them. If your business leader tells you its okay to buy the most expensive because you believe it’s the best, you are going to buy it. The superintendents and school board are not doing anything wrong because they want the best IT environment and the leader in that field is a safe bet.  But they have never before had it clearly shown to them, like now, with the ITEM 21 data.

This may be the buffer you need against school budget cuts

Add to this the fact that state budgets for education are, in many cases, being cut. This shouldn’t mean that expenditure using eRate funding is immune; in fact, it should be the opposite. Schools still have to pay a percentage of these projects with their own money. The out of pocket budget linked to this state cut is just as precious, so if every penny counts, how can we continue to justify spending premiums on IT, when the alternatives are proven to work, they’re cheaper and already cover requirements perfectly for thousands of schools across the country?

It is time for superintendents and board members to understand this clearly, work with their CIOs, make sure that they have thoroughly understood the cost and the premiums. If they still justify the top brand as the IT vendor, then it’s all good.  If you can save 1 teacher, 2 teachers, or more, then they should look at using another vendor. If you can reduce class sizes by several students so that children get more teacher time, surely that makes more sense to give it a serious consideration.

However, most superintendents, board members, school technology directors don’t know about this, or know how to look at this data. They rely on community, media and partners to show them. They are not being given these reports by the state, the FCC or by the vendor. It has to be downloaded, analyzed and prepared.   Effort that many would not be able to perform.

Until its part of the reporting USAC plans on offering, then many will carry on allowing the IT teams to specify those PREMIUM PRODUCTS AT PREMIUM PRICES regardless.

May the force be with you!

So I guess my point is, USE THE FORCE. Let’s save money and improve the teaching environment for the good of the students. That premium makes no difference, so don’t pay it. Chose a vendor who comes close, or exceeds that quality, but at a price that helps the school meet the needs of every child by employing the right number of teachers – not the bare minimum.

This is what every superintendent and every school board should know, see and be able to respond to.

And then the FORCE will really have awakened. 

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