Grant cut threatens Fla. network

Florida Information Resource Network

The future of the Florida Information Resource Network (FIRN), which provides Internet access for all of the state's 67 school districts, is in doubt because of a threatened withdrawal of federal eRate funds.

The possible funding cut is a result of Florida's decision earlier this year to turn management of the then state-run FIRN over to a private company, Hayes E-Government Resources Inc.

About $7.6 million in federal money that would help run the state network has been withdrawn because Florida did not apply "best price" criteria in awarding the two-year contract to Hayes, according to the Universal Service Administrative Co. (USAC), which runs the $2.25 billion E-Rate program.

E-Rate provides grants to schools and libraries around the country to help them pay for telecommunications and Internet services.

Florida allocated $5.6 million of its own money for FIRN, but needs eRate to fully fund FIRN for the coming school year. The state Department of Education will provide emergency funding to ensure FIRN continues to operate through the fall semester while the USAC decision is being appealed, according to a DOE spokesperson.

"In Florida we use best value rather than lowest price to award these contracts, and in our estimation the Hayes award was the best value," said Frances Marine, the DOE's press secretary. "We simply think the USAC doesn't understand how Florida goes about awarding these kinds of contracts."

Unfortunately there is no set time limit for the USAC to hear these appeals, she said, though the DOE has asked it to expedite this appeal.

The DOE is "pretty confident" the appeal will be successful, Marine said, though it's also working on a contingency plan just in case the decision does go against it.

Budgets throughout the Florida government, as elsewhere in the country, are stretched very thin already. Marine said it's not clear if the DOE would have enough in its current budget to provide the full-year funds, or if the state legislature would be willing to add money to it to ensure FIRN continues operating.

Brian Robinson is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Ore. He can be reached at hullite@mindspring.com.

About the Author

Brian Robinson is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore.

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