City schools urged to resolve tech funds dispute

December 06, 2006|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,Sun reporter

U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings is calling on the Baltimore school system to immediately resolve its problems with the federal E-Rate program, which provides discounts on technology to poor schools and libraries.

The city school system has not received any E-Rate money since the 2002-2003 school year. The federal government is seeking to take back $2.5 million that an audit said was misspent then, and funding being frozen until the system can resolve the audit's findings.

School system officials announced yesterday that they have cleared the first hurdle: The federal government has accepted a corrective action plan they submitted in November.

In a letter last week to schools interim Chief Executive Officer Charlene Cooper Boston, Cummings called it "egregious" and "simply unacceptable" that city students are going without available technology because of administrators' failures.

Cummings said in an interview that when he visits city schools, teachers and principals routinely ask if he can help get computers for their classrooms, which many are lacking.

"I can't tell you how this makes me feel," Cummings said. "If we haven't gotten any E-Rate money since 2002, that's a long time. Kids that were in the second grade are now in the sixth or seventh. They could've had more computer access, more computer time, and they haven't gotten it. ... Four years without a computer is like a lifetime for a child."

He said he has lost his patience because "in today's world, if you can't use a computer, you're in trouble."

By next week, the school system must submit to the federal government a set of new internal procedures to show how it will comply with E-Rate regulations. Officials said they are also providing staff with E-Rate training.

The school board is scheduled to vote Tuesday on a contract with a consultant, Funds for Learning, to help it resolve its E-Rate problems. A competing consulting company alleged that Funds for Learning has a conflict of interest because it also consults for Cisco Systems, and the city schools are applying to E-Rate for discounts on Cisco equipment. Under federal rules, E-Rate purchases must be competitively bid.

The school system and Funds for Learning say there's no conflict because the consultant will not be involved in purchasing decisions. But Cummings said the school system should avoid entering into contracts that create even an appearance of a conflict, even if there isn't one.

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