Bedke: Districts might be asked to extend broadband contracts

School districts just finished scrambling to keep broadband in their high schools — and there’s a chance they might be asked to extend their short-term deals with Internet providers.

There are advantages to replacing the defunct Idaho Education Network contract with another statewide plan, House Speaker Scott Bedke told reporters Wednesday. However, he said, it might make more sense for districts to build on the four-month contracts they have signed in the past few days.

Bedke and Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill spoke about school broadband — and other issues — in an hour-long question-and-answer session sponsored by the Idaho Press Club.

The Legislature addressed the immediate threat of a shutdown last month, passing a $3.6 million bailout that will reimburse school districts for their short-term broadband contracts. Lawmakers passed the bailout within a matter of days, and school districts had to move just about as quickly. They had to sign contracts with vendors by Feb. 27, or face a shutdown in service.

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Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, and House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley.

Bedke admitted that districts went through a “fire drill,” securing broadband on the fly. While the state should be flexible about plans for 2015-16, he’s hoping for a more seamless transition into the next school year.

Hill also praised the vendors. Internet providers could have “gouged” districts, especially in rural communities that have a shortage of options, but didn’t. “(They’ve) certainly stepped up to the plate.”

Meanwhile, it’s unclear how the Idaho Education Network debacle will affect contract reform. Both Hill and Bedke say they have seen drafts of contract reform legislation, but both said it’s possible that legislators will form an interim committee to study procurement issues between the 2015 and 2016 sessions.

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“It’s a hugely complex issue,” Hill said.

Hill revisited one comment he made before the start of the 2015 session — when he said District Judge Patrick Owen’s ruling throwing out the network contract was a blessing in disguise.

The blessing is no longer disguised, Hill said Wednesday. Legislators were looking for a way out of the flawed contract, and the ruling gives the state a chance to restructure and rebid the contract.

“It was a bad contract,” he said. “We needed a fresh start.”