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Pennsylvania schools lament possible loss of phone, Internet subsidies

| Tuesday, May 6, 2014, 11:15 p.m.

A Federal Communications Commission proposal to trim some Internet and telephone subsidies to schools and libraries is raising red flags in cash-strapped school districts.

The subsidies, known as E-rates, underwrote more than $1.1 billion in costs for telephone service, new websites, Internet connections and email access for 1,100 Pennsylvania schools and libraries between 1998 and 2012, according to the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officers.

Although the FCC has not released its final plan, many suspect the agency intends to phase out subsidies for so-called legacy services such as telephone voice services and hosted email and add money for new technologies and services.

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Scranton, fears changes could hurt many schools.

“School districts across the state are struggling with already strained budgets. The FCC shouldn't increase the burden that these school districts have by eliminating an effective program that provides important services to our school districts,” Casey wrote in a letter to FCC Chairman Tom Bender this week.

In the Pittsburgh Public Schools, which serve about 24,500 students, officials are shifting voice service where possible to broadband, and, in the process, reduced phone costs from $1.7 million in 2010 to about $1 million this year. Pittsburgh hopes to reduce that to $500,000 a year within three years, said Scott Gutowski, director of end-user services for the district.

The savings would lessen the blow of shifting subsidies but still would leave the school district with a $400,000 gap to fill if voice subsidies are ultimately capped at 20 percent, Gutowski said.

“If E-rate voice goes away, I'm not happy,” Gutowksi said.

In the Greensburg-Salem School District, which has a total enrollment of about 2,800, E-rates underwrite about $30,000 a year for phone, email and website costs. The bulk of the subsidy — about $20,000 — went to help offset local and long distance phone costs of $32,058.

“It is significant,” district spokesman Chris Suppo said,

Julie Tritt Schell, E-rate coordinator for the Pennsylvania Department of Education, said the changes could have an upside.

“Pennsylvania's schools and libraries will certainly be impacted by the elimination of voice E-rate funding, but we stand to benefit substantially by providing more schools and libraries with access to E-rate funding for internal connections such as Wi-Fi equipment and internal wiring,” she said.

In the Cornell School District, which serves about 650 students, business manager Patrick Berdine said the school receives about $15,000 a year in E-rate subsidies for phones and various Internet services.

“It's nice to have a little help,” he said.

The New Kensington Arnold School District, with about 2,050 students, received E-rate subsidies of $127,318 last year to help offset about $170,000 in costs for phone service, Internet connections, fiber optic and its grading website, Superintendent John Pallone said.

Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com.

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