No one-size-fits-all solution for e-rate dollars

There really is no such thing as a free lunch in Mullan. And that might cause a huge headache for the small community if Idaho Education Network state funding dries up.

The Shoshone County district, which serves 104 students, doesn’t have a hot lunch program, making it much more difficult to apply for federal funds to continue its broadband services. Currently, the district receives broadband through the Idaho Education Network.

In early January, state officials told school districts to apply for e-rate funds on their own so services wouldn’t be disrupted. (Read more at Idaho Education News.)

But there’s a problem with that plan. Some small schools in Idaho don’t have a lunch program, which the federal government uses to calculate how much funding to provide.

Here’s how it works: E-rate dollars help libraries, schools and school districts pay for telecommunications and internet, pitching in up to 90 percent of the cost of connections and service. The amount a school or district is compensated depends on the level of poverty in the community and whether the applicant is in an urban or rural area.

That poverty level is most commonly calculated by looking at the number of participants in the school’s free and reduced lunch program, which is also coordinated by the federal government.

When the state applied for e-rate dollars for IEN on behalf of the participating school districts and schools, it wasn’t a problem; the Universal Service Administrative Company, which handles e-rate applications, looked at the state as a whole. But now that the superintendent’s office is telling individual entities to apply for e-rate dollars on their own, Mullan School District faces a headache.

There are alternative ways to prove poverty levels in a community that doesn’t have a hot lunch program, such as income surveys.  But Mullan High School teacher Don Kotschevar said the community is wary of handing over that type of data to the schools, and previous efforts to collect the information have been unsuccessful.

Broadband is expensive in Mullan, Kotschevar added — too expensive for the school district to maintain services at the same level if IEN is disrupted.

While the district doesn’t use IEN classes, students rely on the broadband to take courses through Idaho Distance Learning Academy.

“We would be in deep trouble without the broadband the IEN provides,” said Mullan School District superintendent Robin Stanley.

There are other Idaho School Districts that don’t have hot lunch programs or participate in only the milk program. Two, Pleasant Valley and Arbon, don’t have IEN, have never applied for e-rate funds and don’t plan to, according to school district officials contacted by Idaho Reports. The other three districts — Three Creek, Prairie, and Avery — didn’t respond to requests for comment. (Those districts are also smaller than Mullan; For instance, Pleasant Valley serves six elementary school students, and sends six high schools students across the border to Oregon.) There are also multiple schools and charter schools that don’t provide hot lunch, but could be rolled in with their districts for the e-rate applications.

Idaho Department of Education spokesman Kelly Everitt said Mullan School District has not reached out for guidance on how to proceed.

There is still hope for Mullan School District, but it has to act fast. Camille Wells, spokeswoman for Idaho Education Network, said Mullan School District hadn’t asked for help from IEN, either, but reiterated the other ways the district could qualify for e-rate funds without a hot lunch program. “(T)hey may have equivalent family income data from a free milk or breakfast program.  At a minimum, if they’re a rural school district, they qualify for a 25% discount.  If a district can identify at least 1% of its students as Community Eligibility Provision, they would qualify for at least a 50% discount,” Wells wrote in an e-mail to Idaho Reports.

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