Amy Hurst

Amy Hurst, technology director for Anniston schools, does everything from maintaining the central computer mainframe to service work on laptops. There's a push to update the gear and give students laptops. (Trent Penny/The Anniston Star)

Anniston City Schools’ application for federal money to pay for technology upgrades —  central to heated debates over the summer about who would pay for that work — could soon be approved, according to the system’s technology director.

Amy Hurst, technology director for Anniston’s public schools, said Wednesday that the school system learned in early September that an amended application to the federal E-Rate program needed minor adjustments, but that the request would probably be granted.

“It seems likely that we will be funded,”  Hurst said, adding that she was told as much by an employee at the Universal Service Administrative Company, the nonprofit designated by the Federal Communications Commission to administer E-Rate money. Attempts to reach the nonprofit Wednesday were unsuccessful.  

Attempts to reach Jerome Browning,  state E-Rate coordinator for the Alabama Department of Education, this week and last were also unsuccessful. Browning told The Star in June that he couldn’t say for certain that Anniston will be approved this year, but that “it is a high probability that they will get that funding they requested for 2017.”

Superintendent Darren Douthitt, reached by phone Monday, said he was uncertain of the details of the system’s E-Rate application status and referred questions to Hurst. Attempts to reach Douthitt on Wednesday were unsuccessful.

The school system’s application to the E-rate program was central to discussions over the summer between Anniston City Council members, school board members and a local attorney, who had asked that the city pay $600,000 over three years toward the technology initiative.   

Anniston’s schools earlier this year applied through the E-Rate program for $247,000 to help pay for for new internet and communication access infrastructure, but after a judge approved local attorney Donald Stewart’s plan to complete technology upgrades at Anniston schools with $1.4 million left over from a court settlement over chemical contamination, school administrators agreed to turn down the E-Rate money, if approved, and go with Stewart’s plan.  

Instead, however, the application was amended to direct any E-Rate money approved toward additional technology infrastructure work not completed under Stewart’s plan, Hurst said Wednesday.

“We’re waiting for them to send us the full commitment,” Hurst said of the pending E-Rate award announcement.

The settlement money originated from a $300 million settlement by Monsanto and its successor companies with more than 3,000 plaintiffs who were affected by polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, Monsanto manufactured in its Anniston plant for decades.

Anniston City Schools’ amended application asks for $250,000 for additional fiber optic cables, switches and other infrastructure upgrades, but the E-Rate program only pays a percentage of that and requires a local match, Hurst said. She hopes to receive about $180,000 in federal funds to complete the work.   

Slappey Communications, a Birmingham company hired by Stewart to complete the work at Anniston’s schools, has finished the company’s internet infrastructure project, but has continued to work on the system’s new internet-based phone system, Hurst said.

The school system’s wireless internet infrastructure as it is today, bolstered by work done this summer under Stewart’s plan, can support all students having laptops, Hurst said, but the additional work will increase internet speeds and add equipment that will make it easier for her to monitor the technology. The system could also use new internet servers, Hurst said, but the cost of that equipment isn’t covered under the E-Rate program.  

“I’m definitely sitting better than I was,” Hurst said of the work done this summer. “But there are still additional things that need to be done. There’s still some things that can be further brought up to spec.”

Stewart has said his plan to have the city kick in $600,000 over three years would have made the technology upgrades and given each student in Anniston a laptop. Stewart’s plan also called for giving Calhoun County students at schools in Saks and Wellborn digital devices.

Staff writer Eddie Burkhalter: 256-235-3562. On Twitter @Burkhalter_Star.