Computer compliance

December 04, 2006

Can the Baltimore City school system afford to lose $2.5 million in federal government funds for computers? Given all that city schools need, the answer is no. But the system could be forced to return funds unless it can satisfy auditors that computer equipment obtained through a targeted program was installed and used. School officials insist that new procedures are being put in place to fix the problem. They need to make sure that happens and protect any funds that remain in jeopardy.

Discounted Internet access and telecommunications equipment are provided to school districts in rural areas and those with high poverty populations through a program known as E-rate, which falls under the authority of the Federal Communications Commission. But allegations of fraud and waste have put the program under increased scrutiny across the country.

Last year, congressional investigators chided the FCC for not providing adequate supervision. And the Justice Department has also advocated stricter oversight, resulting in closer monitoring of how E-rate funds are being used. An audit of Baltimore's program found a number of problems in 2002, including inadequate documentation to justify the amount of the discount received by the school system, lack of evidence that equipment had been installed and was functioning and failure to make effective use of equipment and services that the program provided.

School officials acknowledge past issues of noncompliance. But they also insist that some remedial measures have been put in place, including a better tracking system to monitor equipment funded through the E-rate program. And next week, the school board is scheduled to vote on a $267,000, three-year contract with a consulting firm that will help the system's information technology specialists clean up any remaining problems and comply with program requirements in the future.

Unless auditors are convinced that previous problems have been cured, they won't - and shouldn't - allow Baltimore to receive more E-rate funds. School officials need to convince not only the auditors, but also students and the public, that they won't be throwing any more good money after bad.

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