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Idaho Solves School Broadband Dilemma

Gov. C.L. Otter signed legislation on Friday sending the Department of Education $3.64 million to reimburse school districts for their own broadband costs.

by Nathan Brown, The Times-News / March 3, 2015
Gov. C.L. Otter, Idaho Flickr/Jake Putnam

(Tribune News Service) -- Every school district in Idaho now has its own broadband contract in place. And no district expects to have its service down for more than a couple days this week, the state Department of Education’s chief technology official told lawmakers Friday morning.

“Most districts look like they’re going to be able to make the transition ... without much effort,” Will Goodman told the Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriation Committee.

Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter signed legislation on Friday sending the DOE $3.64 million to reimburse school districts for their own broadband costs. School districts have been scrambling to get their own broadband in place since mid-February, when Fourth District Judge Patrick Owen reaffirmed his November ruling that the statewide broadband contract was void because Syringa Networks was cut out of the deal.

The federal Justice Department is investigating how the original contract was awarded to ENA and CenturyLink. The Post Register, of Idaho Falls, reported this week that some lawmakers are under a federal gag order related to the investigation, possibly because the investigation is under the federal False Claims Act, which allows whistleblowers to file sealed lawsuits against recipients of federal contracts.

Twin Falls and Cassia County are both sticking with Education Networks of America, the state’s old provider under the voided contract, and the contracts are for the same amount as they were under the state contract — $3,787 and $3,202 a month, respectively.

“With the testing window opening up and seniors in required classes for graduation, this really was the best solution moving forward,” for the rest of this school, said Cassia County district spokeswoman Debbie Critchfield.

Cassia County, which is one of the biggest users of the Idaho Education Network’s services in the state, does not expect any interruptions, said Critchfield.

Cassia County, like districts throughout the state, is applying for federal “e-rate” funding to pay some of the broadband costs for the 2015-2016 school year. Critchfield said the school board would likely decide, on March 2 at the earliest, how to proceed next year. The district has received five bids, ranging from $1,154 to $3,202 a month.

The state used to get federal e-rate money — which is collected from a surcharge on phone bills — to pay about three-quarters of the network’s costs. However, the feds stopped paying in 2013 amid the lawsuit and concerns about the state contract’s legality.

Goodman said the districts’ e-rate reimbursements will depend on the percentage of students receiving free and reduced-price lunches.

The Education Department got the money on Thursday night, and Goodman says they plan to send $2,000 to each school district on Monday. After that, districts can log into a state website and upload their documentation to get further reimbursement. The department will also collect other data on broadband from the districts, including how much each pays for broadband and which company received the local contracts.

JFAC Co-Chairman Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said he had heard about some districts sticking with current contractors, but ended up paying more than under the state’s contract, due to one-time setup costs.

“Is the department looking at that?” Cameron asked. “How do you address those issues? If a district went ahead and signed a contract with a current vendor and one-time costs were loaded into that, how are you going to handle that?”

Goodman said the department would have that data after March 9.

Goodman and other department staff and contractors have been working with districts this month to help reconfigure equipment, apply for the federal dollars and generally make sure everything went smoothly. Lawmakers praised him for his work on the transition.

“We handed you a real ball of wax,” said JFAC Co-Chairwoman Maxine Bell, R-Jerome.

©2015 The Times-News (Twin Falls, Idaho) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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