About 200 schools may opt for WiFi service

(UPDATED, 5:09 p.m., with new information about the number of schools that are eligible for the WiFi service.)

About 200 Idaho high schools and junior high schools may receive state-funded WiFi service, under a controversial multiyear wireless contract signed last week.

The Education Department released the figure Friday morning. But it isn’t a firm figure, Education Department spokeswoman Melissa McGrath said Friday.

The state won’t have an exact figure until its WiFi contractor, Nashville, Tenn.-based Education Networks of America, conducts site visits to figure out how many schools will need to be hooked up. It’s possible that some districts may take a piecemeal approach, opting for the WiFi service in some schools but not others.

According to the contract, site visits will begin Aug. 12. All participating schools must receive WiFi by March 15.

The opt-in rate is significant, since the state’s multiyear contract with ENA was predicated on the notion that most schools and districts would sign up for the service — and that ENA should be compensated based on a heavy opt-in rate. In its request for proposals on the WiFi contract, the Education Department said it expects “the vast majority of eligible Idaho high schools will participate in the project.”

But that opt-in rate is proving to be a moving target.

According to the RFP — the basis for the bids for the contract — the state said that 333 schools could qualify for the WiFi hookups. Based on this figure, it appeared that the opt-in rate would translate to roughly 60 percent.

But late Friday afternoon, McGrath said the figure in the RFP was inflated, because it included middle schools, junior high schools and high schools. The RFP also limits WiFi eligibility to schools with ninth- to 12th-graders — which means that middle schools are ineligible. Subtracting middle schools from the figure in the RFP, the state now says about 249 schools are eligible for the WiFi service, McGrath said. This could bring the opt-in rate to roughly 80 percent.

In a news release Friday, the Education Department touted the WiFi contract’s extensive statewide reach: 93 school districts and 21 public charter schools signed up for the service by Thursday night’s deadline. That’s an 83 percent response rate; 137 school districts and charter schools were eligible to sign up.

Nearly 90,000 students will receive WiFi through the state-issued service, according to Education Department estimates.

“As a state, it is our goal and our responsibility to ensure every child has equal access to the best educational opportunities, no matter where they live. It is clear schools are eager for this connectivity so they can provide teachers with the tools and resources necessary to meet the needs of every student,” Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna said in a news release.

A review of the school districts’ signup list, provided by the Education Department, reveals that most of the state’s largest school districts are opting in. The opt-in list includes the largest districts in the Treasure Valley — Meridian, Boise, Nampa, Caldwell and Vallivue — The Twin Falls and Bonneville districts also are opting in.

But several large districts have decided to go their own way, including Coeur d’Alene, Idaho Falls and Pocatello.

The contract has come under fire since it was announced on July 25. The WiFi service was funded with a $2.25 million budget line item for 2013-14, and some key legislators have said they never envisioned a five-year contract that could extend to 15 years. Other critics have pointed out that ENA — has extensive ties in Idaho political circles, and has made nearly $40,000 in campaign contributions to Luna, Gov. Butch Otter and more than 40 sitting legislators.

The Education Department says a multiyear arrangement is routine, and does not obligate the Legislature to fund the WiFi service in future years. And state officials have said ENA’s proposal — approved unanimously by a nine-member review panel — came in under budget, at $2.1 million.

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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