JFAC zeroes out Idaho Education Network budget

First, legislative budget-writers heard some more encouraging news about broadband in Idaho high schools: the on-the-fly Internet transition should not prevent any seniors from completing graduation requirements.

Then, budget-writers swiftly zeroed out the Idaho Education Network — the beleaguered statewide system at the heart of Idaho’s broadband crisis.

Thursday morning’s Department of Administration budget proposal comes as little surprise. On Monday, the same Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee recommended giving the State Department of Education another $6.3 million to cover local broadband contracts in 2015-16.

But JFAC’s budget request dismantles the Idaho Education Network, at least for the next 16 months. The agency’s budget, which started out at $28.5 million at the start of the 2014-15 budget year, would drop to $19.6 million. The budget would eliminate five full-time Administration Department positions that had been dedicated to the program.

The budget bill’s “intent language” places additional shackles on the Administration Department. For example, the department “shall not enter into any contracts relating to educational services previously provided under the Idaho Education Network until a longer-term policy direction is established by the Legislature in concert with the governor.”

That process is under way. The department will go out for bids this summer on a long-term broadband contract, which would go into effect in 2016.

In the meantime, though, the transition to short-term local contracts continues to get favorable reviews.

The latest Legislative Services Office analysis, shared with JFAC this morning, reveals the state will save nearly $1.2 million on the local contracts. That’s not quite as robust as the $1.3 million figure released by the Department of Education Tuesday — but it still represents 37 percent in savings from the defunct Idaho Education Network system. The districts have also secured 59 percent more bandwidth under the new contracts.

The classroom disruption has been minimal, LSO budget and policy analyst Robyn Lockett told JFAC. Enrollment in online classes has remained virtually unchanged since Feb. 11, when District Judge Patrick Owen reaffirmed his ruling to void the network contract. Only 43 high school students in five districts dropped online classes between Feb. 11 and March 1 — and those moves were unrelated to the contract fiasco.

K-12 budget on hold — still

After Thursday morning’s meeting, JFAC is basically done with its budget-writing work. One big item remains: the public schools budget, which is on hold due to the ongoing debate over the teacher career ladder proposal.

JFAC will not meet again until Tuesday, co-chair Sen. Dean Cameron said Thursday. And it doesn’t appear likely that the K-12 budget will even come up Tuesday. Budget-writers will not hold an  early “pre-meeting” Tuesday to discuss budget motions — and that’s standard procedure when the committee writes budget bills.