BY MICHAEL RICONDA
A recent investigative report by Julie Wiener and Hella Winston of Manhattan’s Jewish Week publication revealed that religious Jewish schools in Rockland have been receiving substantial technology subsidies, though many of the schools have little to no information technology available.
According to the report, 285 Jewish schools across New York State have received $30 million in 2011 through the E-rate program, which subsidizes technology costs for schools in low-income communities. However, many of these schools have little to no internet or telecommunications spending to account for, leaving the fate of the remaining funds unknown.
Two of the biggest recipients of E-rate funding in Rockland County were revealed to be Yeshiva Avir Yakov in New Square and the United Talmudical Academy (UTA) in Monsey. Yeshiva Avir Yakov, which serves about 3,000 students, pulled in $817,065 in 2011 alone, while The UTA received $84,865 in 2011 for its Monsey branch.
Though the amount Yeshiva Avir Yakov received in 2012 dropped to $209,423, it remains an unusually high figure. In contrast, the financially-strained 8,000 student East Ramapo Central School District receives just a little more than that, pulling in $132,073 in 2011 while the 9,000 student Clarkstown Central School District received $100,075 in the same year.
E-rate works by distributing funds from the Federal Communications Commission’s Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC) to service providers, which in turn provide schools with equipment and updates.
The E-rate system has been criticized for poor oversight and waste, making abuse by unscrupulous service providers and school administrators an ever-present possibility. Wiener explaining that E-rate monitors $2.25 billion distributed to over 4,000 service providers working in over 100,000 schools with only 100 audits per year.
“There doesn’t seem to be a great deal of auditing,” Wiener explained. “There’s some, but relative to the size of the program and the amount of money that’s being distributed, it’s not that much.”
In addition to the disproportionate distribution of funds, Weiner pointed out that Yeshiva Avir Yakov not only had no internet connection, but no computers whatsoever. Aaron Moeller, editor-in-chief of the Advocate, confirmed that not only were there no computers in the building, but students were discouraged from internet access outside the school as well.
“There are definitely no computers in there,” Moeller explained. “Before they go to school there, most students have to sign a waiver that they won’t use the internet.”
Moeller also explained the possibility that the internet was used in schools with content filters, but described the scenario as “very unlikely.”
Orthodox Jewish communities are typically wary of internet use, the most notable example of which was a rally at Citi Field and Arthur Ashe stadiums in Queens where 60,000 met to discuss the potential cultural dangers the Internet’s flow of information may pose for the highly-traditional communities.
Furthermore, the schools’ grants do not seem to suggest the needs of a school with no connectivity between classrooms. Online E-rate records show the bulk of Yeshiva Avir Yakov’s initial commitment prior to disbursement as $929,911 for internal connections, while the UTA in Monsey received an initial commitment of $31,157 for internal communications and internet access together, though the bulk of their 2011 requests consisted of telecommunications subsidies.
USAC Director of External Relations Eric Iversen responded to questions about disbursements by explaining E-rate has conducted 800 audits since 2007 and have found no instances of criminal fraud in the past. Though Iversen could not comment on specific schools or prior investigations, he did mention that investigations have been opened into schools and distributors mentioned in Weiner’s piece.
Weiner’s report is not the first to notice suspicious E-rate subsidies in Rockland schools. In 2004, an FCC investigation concluded that the United Talmudical Academy had failed to comply with federal mandates on the use of budgeted E-rate funds in 1999.
The FCC recommended the recovery of $934,300 in subsidies by the USAC, a figure derived from investigations into UTA’s failure to pay their entire non-discounted funding in a timely fashion. The FCC also recommended the Wireline Competition Bureau take additional steps to evaluate funding requests and screen for instances such as the UTA case.
The Rockland County Times attempted to contact Yeshiva Avir Yakov and their Brooklyn-based distributor Discount Cellular Plus, but received no response. A United Talmudical Academy spokesman declined comment.