We live at a time when increasing emphasis is placed on oversight and transparency, with technology that allows us to scrutinize and regulate behavior in the public marketplace. In spite of this, there still are improprieties in the way business is done. It’s easy to use a broad brush and say that something is always right or always wrong, but reality is rarely black and white. Do individual circumstances matter?
A recent blog post by our friends (and client) at Funds For Learning speaks to this issue, and got us thinking about how a vendor donation might influence a school district when it comes time for that district to consider doing business with the vendor. What constitutes a gift? What constitutes “influence?” The recently announced ban on gifts by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) could have serious implications for schools seeking E-rate funding for their school. Verlyne Jolley’s blog post describes this confusing ethical landscape succinctly, and poses some questions that defy easy answers.
Appearances are Everything
November 4, 2010
By Verlyne Jolley
One has to ask with the recent shift and focus of the USAC 2010 Fall Applicant Training sessions how often schools are bribed by service providers with the promise of extravagant gifts and meals? If you attended a training this fall you may also be puzzled by the focus on the FCC “Gift Ban.” The training session led many to believe that schools were overflowing with funds and service providers wining and dining and showering school personnel with gifts and food. The standard USAC response to any questions asked during training regarding the gift ban was that the applicant should avoid any appearances of inappropriate gifts.
The irony in this picture is that most schools across the nations are deeply struggling to meet financial shortfalls and many classrooms have a shortage of supplies and educators. Exactly what percent of applicants have inappropriately accepted gifts or donations from vendors in exchange for the promise of an E-rate contract is unclear. However based on the USAC fall training it must be very high as certainly the FCC would not have made such fuss over the gift ban if that was not the case.
The recent gift ban has school personal running scared and confused. What if a service provider has donated funds or products to a district, is the district potentially tainted for E-rate eternity? How many schools across the nation have scoreboards and sport game day printout guides sponsored by local vendors? Will this jeopardize a schools E-rate funding for discounts on local phone service? Most E-rate decision makers have no idea what the local school PTO and sport departments even do to raise money to fund these extracurricular activities for students. Will school districts now have to issue a mandatory lock down on any efforts by the school staff or local community organizations not to seek donations from outside sources or risk losing E-rate funding for a district wide area network connectivity?
What about education tradeshows and national conferences attended by teachers and school administrators? It is customary for tradeshows and education events to be sponsored by vendors. This sponsorship activity is generally open to all and any vendors who pay a fee to attend and set up a booth to display the goods and services they offer. Without the sponsorship of vendors at these events, the cost to attend could double or triple for school staff attendees. With the financial shortfalls for schools across the nation it is unlikely that staff will be able to attend these national educator shows at an increased price. If a school does attend a conference or event, the staff should be warned not to enter raffles, accept door prizes or pick up any useless free pen or pads of papers being passed out by vendors. As one never knows when an E-rate auditor could show up and see the vendor logo on the squishy stress ball on the superintendents’ administrative secretaries’ desk and cry Competitive Bid Violation!
School districts beware as the recent 6th Report & Order makes it very clear that schools will be penalized for accepting gifts or donations of any kind for any reason regardless if it has any influence on the school procurement process for eligible E-rate goods and services. For districts that prefer to evaluate specific technology products prior to investing in significant technology projects should take heed before seeking donations on any equipment for the purpose of evaluation. The irony in this is that the FCC itself recognizes the value in donations and evaluating technology solutions. On October 26, 2010, the FCC announced the launching of the Technology Experience Center. The FCC announced that it was seeking donations for the FCC TEC to provide FCC employees and guests’ hands-on experience with the latest communications devices and solutions. Hopefully there are not any school districts on that guest list. After all, appearances are everything.
Thanks again to the Funds For Learning team for letting us re-post this excellent piece. We’d love to know what you think, and will forward all comments to Verlyne.