Interview with Eric Chambers, NCCE’s Director of E-Rate and Services.
You’ve been with NCCE since last September. What brought you here?
I had been working at an Educational Service District and worked with schools in five counties. Coming to NCCE allowed me to expand the positive work I was doing there across four states. That opportunity coupled with having a great team here at NCCE made this truly something I couldn’t pass up.
I heard that you are an Anthropologist by training. So, how did you end up being the E-rate guru for NCCE?
Ha! That’s a great story. The short answer is that I graduated with a master’s degree in anthropology in 1996 and the only jobs I could find at the time were either in mental health or juvenile justice so I ended up bouncing around those two fields for a few years. I got fed up eventually, not with the work but the lack of resources, so I taught myself to develop, fund, and sustain programs. Anthropology taught me to approach this work holistically while engaging diverse stakeholders. In 2012, I moved to education doing the same kind of development work. This E-rate program is directly rooted in that work. I started this program because I was hearing from districts about the lack of funding for technology. While the scope of technology funded by E-rate is small it nonetheless plays an important role in a District’s technology plan. I love that!
I know NCCE provides a lot of free services to districts but E-rate isn’t one of them. How much do you charge for your services?
We charge a flat rate based on the size of the district. Currently, it starts at $750 a year for a district with a single school and goes up from there. For example, a district with 20 schools pays about $11,000 a year for Category One services.
Do you charge a separate fee for Category Two requests?
Yes, we do. We charge $750 for each school in the request so let’s say that you wanted to do a complete wireless upgrade in your middle school – that $750 covers all the work – from RFP development to reimbursement!
Wow, that is a good deal! Can a district hire you only for Category Two requests?
Unfortunately, no. The reason we are able to offer them a great deal on Category Two requests is because we are also doing their Category One work. We charge less, relatively, for Category Two work because we don’t want our fees to get in the way of a District applying for needed equipment.
How did NCCE come up with their fee schedule?
I need to give you the back end story in order to really answer that question. There are a lot of ways that consultants charge districts for E-rate services. Some charge a percentage of either the amount requested or the amount approved, others charge an hourly rate, and some charge per applications. We think percentage based systems are unethical. We also opted to not charge hourly or by an application based fee structure because they reward inefficiencies. We charge a flat rate based on district size. This offers a fair value to our districts and actually incentivizes us and the districts to be most efficient.
Are your fees comparable to other consultants?
That’s a hard question to answer. Certainly some consultants change less than we do but I don’t know of any other consultants that provide the same level of service that NCCE does. We really provide a comprehensive service array.
That brings up another good question: What is included in your “service array?”
I really believe that we provide the most comprehensive set of services of any consultant in the county. Our service array includes, Technology planning support and RFP development; Completion and submission of Forms 470, 471, 486, 498, and 500 for Category One and Two; Preparation of bid materials and on-site coordination of vendor walkthroughs if needed; Mitigate the Program Integrity Assurance (PIA) review process and audits, if needed; Complete BEAR forms to request your refunds once the applications have been approved and services rendered. We even field all vendor questions during the bidding process, manage the flow of paperwork, and deal with most of the new EPC system pieces.
A lot has changes in the E-rate process in the last couple of years. Do you anticipate any more changes in the coming year?
What’s that saying? The only constant is change? Yes, these past two years have seen a lot of change resulting from the Second Modernization Order. Originally, these changes were billed as a two-year pilot project so I suppose things could change again pretty dramatically but I don’t anticipate that happening.
Speaking of the Modernization Order, thumbs up or thumbs down?
I think overall the changes have been good but it has been an adjustment for many districts. The three biggest changes in my mind have been the reduction in services previously eligible under the old Priority One system, the opening up of hardware eligibility for all districts, and the new portal used for submitting all paperwork, perhaps too optimistically called EPC. I know a lot of districts signed long term contracts with service providers under the assumption that they would get some of that reimbursed through the program but then seemingly overnight those services are ineligible (though the contracts remain). In some cases, had districts know what was coming they would not have signed those contracts. On the other hand, districts that have been trying to maintain infrastructure that was end of life five years ago now have a chance to refresh that under the new program every five years. This is a positive step in the right direction!
Okay, let’s shift back to specifics for a little bit. Why should a district outsource their E-rate?
Think of it this way: While we are capable of doing our own taxes, there are clear benefits to working with a tax professional that spends the time necessary to understanding all of the nuances of the tax code to ensure we get the biggest refund possible. I think of E-rate the same way. Sure you can do it yourself, but why not pay someone with the expertise and training to do it for you? Someone that understands the nuances of the program, keeps up on all the changes, and attends professional development to provides a greater overall value.
NCCE E-rate services can be found at: http://ncce.org/e-rate
Eric Chambers has nearly 20 years of experience in fund development having raised $30 million in the last decade alone. For the past 13 years Eric has been developing and securing funding for a variety of educational programs ranging from teaching American history, prevention and behavioral health services, math and science improvement, and technology integration. For the past eight years Eric has managed a full-service E-Rate program serving 19 school districts in Washington State, generating millions of dollars in new revenue for participating school districts. He also worked with several school districts conducting the human part of district-level technology program reviews, program evaluation, and technology planning.
An accomplished instructor, Eric has held adjunct teaching positions with the Colleges of Education at Western Washington University and the University of Washington where he taught classes in educational psychology, fund development, program development, and applied research/evaluation. He has also taught countless workshops in grant writing (including a pre-conference workshop at NCCE), E-Rate, and leadership development.
Eric comes to NCCE from a regional service agency in Washington State, where he most recently served as the Director of Evaluation, Planning, and Development.