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Ohio Officials Worry Fed Funds for School Internet Connectivity Might Dry Up

Nearly 200 school districts around the state haven’t tapped into millions in e-rate funds available for tech upgrades.

(TNS) — This school year could be the last chance for nearly 200 Ohio districts to tap into millions of dollars to upgrade the technology that connects students to high-speed internet.

Because it's unclear whether the federal funding will be reauthorized, advocates and state officials are making it a priority to get the word out about the "E-rate" program so the money isn't left unspent.

Funds are allocated for every district but are distributed only to those that apply for help with specific projects.

About 20 districts in central Ohio have more than half of their available funds remaining, according to a recent report from EducationSuperHighway, a San Francisco-based nonprofit group that advocates for internet access in public schools nationwide.

Those unused amounts range from about $100,000 in some districts, such as Madison Plains, Heath and Lakewood, to more than $1.2 million in Westerville, $870,000 in Worthington and more than $1.5 million in Hilliard, according to data the group compiled using public records.

The allocated dollars vary based on a district's size.

"I've sent a personal email to every district with funds still available, reminding them that the opportunity is there," said Ed Weisenbach, the statewide technology coordinator for the Ohio Department of Education's Office of Information Technology.

The Federal Communications Commission manages the $3.9 billion E-rate program as part of its Universal Service Fund. The fund, which benefits public schools and libraries, is supported by fees charged to telecommunication companies. The program's goal is to promote universal access to telecommunication services across the United States.

Ohio's public schools and libraries have received $80 million in recent years, Weisenbach said.

A portion of the program was overhauled in 2014, making $150 per student available to all public school districts to upgrade their internal connections, including broadband connectivity and services, wireless access points, cabling, firewalls, switches, routers and wireless network controllers.

The funding increase spans five years and its future beyond this school year is uncertain, Weisenbach said.

To receive the funds, districts must agree to pay a portion of the upgrade costs, between 10 percent and 80 percent, depending on factors that include the district's wealth.

For some districts, that could be an obstacle that results in E-rate funds being left on the table, Weisenbach said.

Others might have recently finished large-scale projects that included technology upgrades, making the funds less of a priority, he said.

That's the case in Westerville, district spokesman Greg Viebranz said.

But many districts simply don't know what's available or how to fill out the paperwork associated with E-rate, said Eliza Straim, an EducationSuperHighway consultant for the district including Ohio. The group is putting out the district-specific information to be helpful, not as a "naughty list," its leadership said.

When contacted by The Dispatch, representatives of several districts in central Ohio said officials are still planning to use some of the funds, including Gahanna-Jefferson, Groveport Madison, Licking Heights, Upper Arlington and Buckeye Valley.

Buckeye Valley is one of four districts identified as needing more bandwidth in EducationSuperHighway's report.

Overall, the group said, Ohio fared well in the recent report, which includes an interactive online map that users can customize to show data for technology in need of upgrades in specific school districts.

It found that 99 percent of Ohio students have access to high-speed internet, up from 75 percent of students in 2015. Bandwidth, or the amount of information an internet connection can handle, has doubled during that time.

All but 11 buildings statewide have fiber-optic connections.

The state also manages its own connectivity subsidy program, providing $1,800 a year for each eligible school building, Weisenbach said. It distributed $5.95 million to 783 public school districts last school year, including career-technical centers and charter schools.

Several districts that have finished projects supported by E-rate funds and state subsidies are now enjoying the benefits, including Pickerington, the largest district in the state with a 1-to-1 initiative, an investment of $1.2 million annually that provides an internet-connected device to each of its nearly 11,000 students.

Last Thursday, fifth-grader Dwanae Thomas, 11, read books, completed language arts assignments and competed with classmates in an exciting online quiz game — all using her Chromebook.

She said the device helps her finish her assignments faster.

Teacher Daniel Hillerich said the engaging technology not only supplements his lessons but also allows him to customize assignments based on each student's learning level.

Brian Seymour, Pickerington's director of instructional technology, said the program wouldn't have been possible without first beefing up the infrastructure throughout the district about three years ago.

The district has used about half of its $1.6 million in E-rate funds.

"We knew if the network didn't work, none of the other stuff we wanted to do would work," Seymour said. "Now, we have kids coding drones on Chromebooks and flying them through obstacle courses in the hallway."

©2018 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.