Lawmakers Scrap Idaho Ed Network, Send Emergency Funds to Schools

The contract, issued in 2009 to two politically-connected firms, was mired in controversy from the start, culminating in a judge’s final declaration last week that it was illegal and void.

by Betsy Z. Russell, The Spokesman-Review / February 18, 2015
The network was an initiative much lauded by Gov. Butch Otter (pictured) and former state schools Superintendent Tom Luna, who said it would equalize education across the state. Flickr/arecity

(TNS) – The much-vaunted Idaho Education Network is officially defunct, state lawmakers declared Tuesday, as they approved new emergency funding for school districts to find their own vendors and buy broadband services for the rest of the school year.

The network, which provided video conferencing and broadband internet services linking every Idaho high school, was an initiative much lauded by Gov. Butch Otter and former state schools Superintendent Tom Luna, who said it would equalize education across the state by bringing distance courses to even small, rural schools.

But the $60 million contract the state issued in 2009 to two politically-connected firms to run the service was mired in controversy from the start, culminating in a judge’s final declaration last week that it was illegal and void. An unsuccessful bidder, Syringa Networks, sued, and the court ruled the state had illegally cut Syringa out of the bid, for which it originally had partnered with successful bidder Nashville-based Education Networks of America. Then-state Department of Administration Director Mike Gwartney, a close friend of Otter’s who was heading the department for a salary of $1 a year, awarded the work instead to ENA and Qwest Communications, now Century Link, picking Qwest to do the work Syringa otherwise would have done.

Last year, without consulting lawmakers, current Director Teresa Luna, Tom Luna’s sister, extended the contract through 2019, despite the ongoing court fight. Federal e-rate funds, which come from a telephone tax, that were supposed to pay for three-quarters of the cost of the service were cut off in 2013, out of concern over the legality of the contract.

“I don’t think the idea was flawed,” said Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert. “I think what was flawed here was the procurement process.” Plus, he said, “I think we all envisioned initially that there wouldn’t be just one vendor.” Other states have set up school broadband networks that use multiple vendors, he said.

Rep. Luke Malek, R-Coeur d’Alene, who along with several other members of the Legislature’s joint budget committee helped craft the stopgap measure approved Tuesday, said, “Technology is a moving target, and so as a state we have to be adaptive. This has been a rough transition. We’ve got to be more nimble in the future.”

The plan calls for new state Superintendent of Schools Sherri Ybarra to oversee $3.6 million in reimbursements and advance payments to school districts for their broadband costs through the end of the current school year. Districts would have to take at least three bids for the service; current vendors could bid, along with other providers. The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee also approved pulling $5 million from the state Department of Administration in unspent Idaho Education Network funding back to the state’s general fund. That will more than cover the new funding that Ybarra will distribute to school districts.

House Appropriations Chair Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, said Ybarra’s shown she can take on the task, in part by hiring as her technology chief Will Goodman, head of the Idaho School Technology Association and former technology director for the Mountain Home School District. “She is surrounding herself with a fine staff,” Bell said, “and one of the finest IT people I’ve seen in Mr. Goodman. He has been in the trenches.”

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, JFAC vice-chair, said, “The public expects us to leave this chapter behind us and go a different direction.”

The stopgap appropriation bill that won overwhelming approval in JFAC on Tuesday still needs majority votes in the House and Senate and the governor’s signature to become law. But once budget bills are set by the joint committee, they rarely change.

Asked why lawmakers opted to move the school broadband service from the Department of Administration to Ybarra’s office, the state Department of Education, Cameron said they’re hoping the service will qualify for the federal e-rate matching funds in the future, possibly starting July 1. He said, “We felt like in order to qualify for e-rate funds, there needs to be a clean break from anything that was tainted.”

©2015 The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Wash.)

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