Interview | Cathy Cruzan Provides Funds For Learning

The bottom line when it comes to adding to or improving existing technology in a cash-strapped school district (most every district these days) can often hinge upon whether or not E-rate funding comes through. Funds for Learning was founded in 1997 as a professional services firm that focuses on E-rate management and compliance support. Their mission is to provide high quality solutions for the needs of E-rate stakeholders. “We were the first firm in the nation formed solely to provide professional E-rate services,” says Cathy Cruzan, president of the Edmond, Oklahoma-based firm with additional offices in the Washington, D.C., and Orlando, Florida areas.

Victor: What services does Funds For Learning provide?

Cathy: FFL provides various levels of assistance to E-rate applicants and  other program stakeholders in all 50 states, helping them understand and effectively utilize the Universal Service Funding Program and to comply with all its rules. Through a variety of web-based tools and compliance services, we provide training, answer questions concerning E-rate policies, and interact with USAC on the client’s behalf concerning funding request review, invoicing and payments, service substitutions, eligibility inquiries and other E-rate-related issues.

Victor: In what ways is the company unique or different from competitors?

Cathy: Funds For Learning is committed to the long-term success of the E-rate program.  Funds For Learning is different from competitors in various ways. Including the size of our organization, our diverse professional degreed staff, and advanced technology resources and of course E-rate Manager. The size, educational diversity and depth of our staff enable schools to have reliable and dedicated teams of skilled experts in all facets of the program.  E-rate Manager ® (ERM) is an electronic E-rate document repository, project management and reporting system that both Funds For Learning and our clients have 24/7 access. We focus exclusively on E-rate regulatory compliance and we have a strong record of providing high-quality service.

Victor: What are the advantages of using E-rate Manager?

Cathy: E-rate Manager® is a web-based tool developed by FFL to help schools and service providers effectively manage the E-rate process. The tool is a great resource for schools to track their funding, assist with the preparation of all E-rate forms, facilitate document retention and archiving, and stay abreast of E-rate rules, deadlines, and program updates. It is a one-of-a-kind tool giving applicants and service provider’s immediate access to E-rate forms, data, historical information and status reports.

Victor: Can you provide a quick history of the E-rate program?

Cathy: The Schools and Libraries Program of the Universal Service Fund, commonly known as E-rate is administered by the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC) under the direction of the FCC. It was established in 1996 as a part of the Telecommunications Act. The E-rate program is a discount program funded with $2.25 billion dollars annually from the Universal Service Fund. The program is supported by assessments on telecommunications companies, and is not a part of the federal budget.  The program provides discounts to schools and libraries nationwide to obtain affordable telecommunications services, internet access, internal connections and basic maintenance of internal connections.  The discount received can range from 20 percent to 90 percent of the costs of eligible services, depending on the level of poverty and the urban/rural status of the student population.

Victor: Why is E-rate funding mission critical for schools, districts and libraries?

Cathy: The E-rate program supports technology initiatives both directly and indirectly.  First, it offers significant discounts on the purchase of eligible connectivity and infrastructure services, which have become increasingly critical in a time of economic turmoil and subsequent cuts in resources. Further, by effectively leveraging the savings realized from the purchase of discounted services, schools can invest in other technology initiatives for which funds might be otherwise unavailable.

Victor: How has the E-rate program changed over time?

Cathy: It could be argued that to a certain extent, the E-rate program is in a constant state of change.  Without question, there are regulatory changes which occur on a regular basis as the program evolves. These changes, combined with shifts in applicants’ organizational objectives as well as the rapid pace of technology, create an environment where change is the norm. Being successful in the program, then, requires more than just filling out forms and meeting deadlines – applicants must be constantly aware of the way that changes in program policy and its administration may affect how they operate. It is therefore critical that applicants not only follow the rules, but retain detailed documentation to validate and support regulatory compliance should they receive audits or reviews down the line.

Victor: What do you see for the future of E-rate?

Cathy: E-rate stakeholders are fortunate in that the program enjoys a good deal of positive support from both Congress and the current FCC administration. Further, because the funds are not a part of the federal budget, the program tends to be insulated from a good deal of political pressures and potential cuts. Add to this a relatively low rate of waste, fraud, and abuse, and we believe that the program will be viable and sustainable for many years to come.

The FCC has shown an expressed interest in streamlining and modernizing the program, as well as looking at ways that some program funds (Priority Two funding) can be made available to lower-discount applicants who may have historically not qualified for this type of support. We believe that these are laudable and important goals, and urge all E-rate stakeholders to continue to provide comments and suggestions to the program administrators on ways that the program can be further improved.

Victor: Why would a school or district turn to Funds For Learning for assistance?

Cathy: While the E-rate program is a tremendous resource for K-12 schools and public libraries, it is not without its share of work.  Successful E-rate applicants must stay abreast of and adhere to a wide variety of both E-rate and state and local rules and regulations, ensure that paperwork and forms are completed correctly and submitted before the required deadlines, and retain a meticulous and organized documentation repository for substantiating regulatory compliance in the future – all while balancing other organizational objectives in the face of tightening budgets and cuts left and right. Funds For Learning can provide the expertise, efficiencies, and tools for dealing with any E-rate issue, from the common to the complex, backed by our extensive E-rate experience. We have helped schools successfully navigate the E-rate program since 1997, and have a combined 150 years plus of E-rate experience, resulting in measurable client success and long-term relationships with customers. FFL has earned a national reputation for our comprehensive work and depth of understanding of the E-rate program.

Victor: How can E-rate stakeholders keep up-to-date with the E-rate program?

Cathy: E-rate stakeholders can find valuable and up-to-date information on the E-rate program at our website:  www.fundsforlearning.com. We are continually updating the site with the most current E-rate news, analysis, and commentary. FFL is kept abreast of the latest E-rate updates because of our constant interaction with FCC and USAC officials. FFL has been invited by the FCC to participate in public forums on the E-rate program. We have consulted extensively with senior congressional staff members with the E-rate program, and have drafted and helped draft comments to the FCC in connection with Notices of Proposed Rulemaking and other policy-related matters. 

Victor: Any free advice to share with E-rate applicants?

Cathy: We encourage applicants to track and maintain records of all E-rate purchases. This involves documentation from the procurement of goods through the delivery of all E-rate goods and services. The key to success is to dedicate resources to properly manage and oversee the process. Take the time to understand the guidance available and to continually track and review deadlines. The process involves various departments within in any school or district, regardless of size. It is important for various school staff to understand their role in successfully navigating the E-rate process.

Victor: What else can you tell us about Funds For Learning?

Cathy: Funds For Learning recently relocated its offices to a building with approximately 20,000 sq ft. This move has allowed FFL to expand its resources and add to its professional staff.  Funds For Learning has over 150 years combined E-rate experience amongst its professional staff. This staff includes public accountants, attorneys, business administrators, public administrators and dedicated programmers & development staff. The new facility offers high tech solutions enabling FFL professionals to deliver service to schools and libraries across the nation.

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Victor Rivero tells the story of 21st-century education transformation. He is the editor-in-chief of EdTech Digest, a magazine about education transformed through technology. He has written white papers, articles and features for schools, nonprofits and companies in the education marketplace. Write to: victor@VictorRivero.com

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