Broadband impasse jeopardizes $245 million in federal funding

(UPDATED, 5:29 p.m., with comments from Education Department and details from working group meeting.)

The latest worst-case scenario for the Idaho Education Network carries a startling price tag: about $245 million.

That represents the federal funding that could be on the line, if the state doesn’t figure out how to keep its high school broadband system online by the end of the month.

“We need to find a path forward in the very near future,” said John Goedde, Gov. Butch Otter’s adviser on the Idaho Education Network contract and funding mess.

Goedde dropped the $245 million figure Tuesday afternoon, during a meeting of the network’s Program Resource Advisory Council. The council, known as IPRAC, was established by the Legislature to oversee the network’s day-to-day operations.

The crux of the $245 million funding crunch comes down to standardized testing.

This spring, students across Idaho are scheduled to take the Idaho Standards Achievement Test by Smarter Balanced — a computerized assessment tied to the state’s Common Core standards.

Idaho’s waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind education law requires a statewide assessment — and requires schools and districts to test at least 95 percent of their students. The state cannot renegotiate its waiver before summer, State Department of Education officials have said, so the 95 percent testing requirement will be in place this spring.

But there’s a real possibility that Idaho schools won’t be able to hit the 95 percent mark, said Goedde, since schools are counting on the network’s broadband to administer the ISAT. And if the state misses the 95 percent mandate, that throws federal funding into turmoil.

The threatened loss of federal funding is a serious issue, said Tim Corder, state superintendent Sherri Ybarra’s legislative liaison. At this point, the Education Department has no choice but to deliver an online ISAT. Even if the state could rewrite the test into a paper format, this wouldn’t pass muster with the feds, which require an computerized test, said Will Goodman, Ybarra’s chief technology officer.

At the Statehouse, Idaho legislators are facing a tight budget deadline. Short-term funding for the network runs out on Feb. 28. Otter has requested an additional $1.6 million to fund the network from March 1 through the June 30 end of the budget year. (Otter is seeking an additional $10.5 million for 2015-16.)

But Otter administration officials say they need the $1.6 million even sooner than that. CenturyLink, one of the contractors on the project, has threatened to terminate service if it doesn’t receive back payments on the project. CenturyLink is demanding payment by Feb. 22.

IPRAC also heard another sobering number Tuesday. The number of students taking classes over the Idaho Education Network took another dip last semester.

In all, 1,362 students took network classes during the fall semester, about a 10 percent drop from spring semester. Network spokeswoman Camille Wells attributed the dropoff to uncertainty over the network’s future.

State officials continued searching for solutions to the broadband crisis Tuesday — largely in closed meetings.

IPRAC spent much of its time Tuesday in a closed executive session, meeting with the state’s attorneys. Idaho open meetings law allows public agencies to meet in executive session to discuss pending or potential litigation.

The state remains embroiled in a lawsuit surrounding the $60 million contract for the high school broadband project. The contract was tossed out in district court in November; the state and its contractors have asked District Judge Patrick Owen to reconsider or clarify his ruling.

Gov. Butch Otter’s Idaho Education Network working group met late Tuesday afternoon — also behind closed doors. They reached no conclusions after the hour-long meeting, said Wells, but agreed to meet again. No date was set.

Otter’s working group met behind closed doors last week, and emerged with no consensus on the short-term funding crisis, and no consensus on awarding a short-term contract to operate the network through June 2016.

State officials are pushing to award a short-term contract by March 26, in hopes of receiving federally administered “e-Rate” funding for the network. The state’s e-Rate payments, collected on cell phone and landline bills, have been on hold for 23 months, as a result of the contract dispute.

More reading: Click here for full background on the Idaho Education Network impasse.