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NSBA 2024: Kansas District's Private Fiber Network Serves Budget, Equity

In a presentation Monday at the National School Boards Association conference in New Orleans, Lawrence Public Schools officials explained how building a private fiber network improved digital equity and saved money.

A large roll of orange broadband cable sitting in a rural field.
It’s been said that necessity is the mother of innovation, and in 2021, Lawrence Public Schools were ripe for a new idea.

Serving 10,600 students spread across 34 square miles in eastern Kansas, the district struggled with chronic underfunding by the state over decades that had led to structural budget deficits, which coincided with declining enrollment due to high housing costs and a dearth of young families, which then translated to even less state funding.

What’s more, while a substantial number of the district’s families claimed to have Internet, for many of them, that just meant cellphones. At the same time that it needed to bridge the digital divide for these students doing homework on their phones during the COVID-19 pandemic, the district needed to save money any way it could, and administrators didn’t think spending $200,000 a year on broadband would be sustainable for much longer.

Their solution: Build a private fiber network that would be owned and operated by the district, which would connect all the facilities and yield both a faster connection speed and long-term cost savings, then put up their own LTE towers to broadcast Internet service for students all over town.

Lawrence school board member Shannon Kimball explained the initiative to attendees at the National School Boards Association Annual Conference in New Orleans on Monday.

“This issue of how do we close the homework gap is something I’ve heard about at this conference numerous times. I know that it’s been discussed at the national level,” she said. “In lots of ways our state has been trying to address it through investments in infrastructure … but it is not getting us close enough to solve this problem right now.”

Her fellow board member G.R. Gordon-Ross credited the district’s technology director David Vignery with the vision, and an enormous collaborative effort with pulling it off.

The board approved the project in January 2022, and the first phase was completed by August 2023.

“We defined our key partners. We started with the school board, then we worked with the community, then we worked with the city of Lawrence and (infrastructure provider) WANRack. We worked with the state of Kansas, we got some state grant funding, we got E-rate funding, the city helped us with permits [for easements] as we went and actually ran physical cable in the ground,” Gordon-Ross said. “It was not just us deciding to do this and then we went and did it on our own. We started it, but it takes a village.”

Kimball said the total cost of installing over 25 miles of fiber was $2.5 million, but with the help of matching funds and an 80-percent discount because of E-rate, the cost for construction and installation was less than $500,000 for the district. Administrators adjusted the capital outlay fund to pay for it.

Under a 20-year contract for Internet service, on infrastructure owned by the district, the monthly cost will shrink over time by close to 75 percent, landing at $48,000 by the end of the contract. Kimball said the district will have saved about $3 million on Internet service over two decades.

“David (Vignery, technology director) sees this as future-proofing our network,” she said. “We’ve increased our security, we own our own fiber, we have the capacity to expand up to 100 gigs, so we should be good in terms of the capacity that we may need in our network.”

Kimball added that the board’s facilities committee now meets once a month with the district’s chief operations officer and other staff, and those meetings have become important for building operational expertise as well as keeping the school board in the loop. She stressed the importance of taking the time to explain details and cost savings to the board and community, especially if they’re all aware of the district’s money problems, so they can have their questions answered and become advocates for the project.

Gordon-Ross said the board is still looking for ways to fund the second phase of the project — erecting LTE towers — but pointed to the success of phase one as an example of school board-enabled innovation at its best.

“All things being perfect, this is what board work is — it’s doing things today to impact when we’re gone,” he said. “In the day-to-day grind of getting angry emails and getting yelled at during public commentary and all of that, you can find space for this. The space is there. Dream big, find the projects for your district … go and figure out how to do it. In the end, it may not be the exact project that you started with, but don’t ever dismiss it because somebody said you can’t afford it, because the funding is out there. You just may have to get creative.”
Andrew Westrope is managing editor of the Center for Digital Education. Before that, he was a staff writer for Government Technology, and previously was a reporter and editor at community newspapers. He has a bachelor’s degree in physiology from Michigan State University and lives in Northern California.