Broadband: Lawmakers expect network to go dark

(UPDATED, 6:06 p.m., with details from legislative leadership and school district reactions.)

Idaho’s highest-ranking senator had grim news for more than 200 school trustees at a legislative hearing Monday: The state has likely exhausted options for salvaging its high school broadband network this year.

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Sen. Brent Hill, R-Rexburg

The Idaho Education Network broadband service likely won’t work past the end of this month, Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, said during a Senate Education Committee meeting Monday.

CenturyLink is threatening to pull the plug as soon as Sunday, due to unpaid bills.

“It’s been terrible,” Hill said. “We apologize to you.”

The network’s problems first surfaced last legislative session, when state officials said federal contractors had cut off funding for three-fourths of the program.

The problem came to a head in November when District Judge Patrick Owen voided the state’s $60 million broadband contact. On Wednesday, Owen reaffirmed that the contract is illegal and cannot be salvaged in any part.

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“We are somewhat legally hamstrung on what we can address,” said Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee co-chair Dean Cameron, R-Rupert. “To appropriate money to a voided contact would be, by the (attorney general’s) opinion, a misuse of public funds.”

With the clock ticking, Hill, Cameron and Idaho State Department of Education chief technology officer Will Goodman implored school districts to quickly negotiate short-term broadband contracts – on their own – to get them through this school year and next.

JFAC will meet Tuesday morning to consider a potential funding solution for districts that could involve state reimbursements, or some sort of cost-equivalency deal.

Goodman encouraged districts to sign contracts of no more than one year in duration – meaning they could need separate contracts for 2015 and 2016. Districts were encouraged to file a series of federal forms in hopes of receiving “e-Rate” payments collected from phone bill surcharges to cover the costs. The first of those forms is due by Feb. 26 if districts hope to receive e-Rate payments on July 1.

Moments before Hill and Cameron spoke, Weiser school board member Margie Chipman painted lawmakers a bleak picture of life without the broadband network. If the network goes dark, Chipman said Weiser could stand to lose a host of service:

  • Video teleconferencing equipment and access to Idaho Digital Learning Academy courses.
  • Access to staff emails and computerized systems officials use to track attendance, facilitate scheduling, input grades and more.
  • The ability to input data into the Idaho System for Education Excellence longitudinal data system.
  • All online correspondence courses.
  • Access to SAT test registration and practice tests.
  • The ability to administer the online Idaho Standards Achievement Test by Smarter Balanced Common Core-aligned tests.
  • All Google educational software programs, including file storage through Google Drive. “No files are stored in buildings any more,” Chipman said. “It’s all Dropbox or Google Drive.”
  • The ability to offer several dual credit courses through College of Southern Idaho or Boise State University.

“The question all of us are wondering is if we do lose broadband connectivity due to the loss of (the network), how long will schools be without,” Chipman asked lawmakers.

Legislators said they are facing three issues: the short-term issue of service for this school year, broadband service for 2015-16 and a long-term solution for the state’s 115 districts.

West Ada School District superintendent Linda Clark said about 70 percent of the cost of her district’s high school broadband is funded by the state.

Superintendents were notified Monday morning about Sunday’s likely shutdown.

“It’s a very unfortunate thing,” Clark said. “But to their great credit the Legislature has been very up-front about this and they have been communicating.

“It’s a big thing, though, when you have a week (before a potential shutdown),” Clark continued. “Our goal is make sure we don’t have a day we’re dark because the stakes are too high for kids.”

Trustees from across the state are in town participating in the Idaho School Boards Association’s “Day on the Hill” activities.

JFAC’s cryptic funding plan

Legislative budget-writers will consider a plan Tuesday morning to salvage the network until the summer, at least. But most of the details will have to wait until the morning.

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Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert

On Monday, Cameron was cryptic about the proposal.

“We’re finally at a spot where we feel we have to move forward,” Cameron told reporters Monday morning, after announcing broadband would be on Tuesday morning’s committee agenda.

According to Tuesday’s committee agenda, budget-writers will consider a supplemental appropriation for the network — which would run until June 30, the end of the current budget year.

On Monday, Cameron spoke about a plan to protect schools and students from a shutdown — and then talked about what won’t be in the plan:

  • No “bridge contract.” JFAC has ruled out an idea from Gov. Butch Otter’s administration — a one-year contract, identical to the current, voided network contract, that would be in effect from July through June 2016. The Otter administration had hoped a bridge contract would qualify the state for “e-Rate” funds — but budget-writers have been skeptical about this idea from the start.
  • No language to authorize back payments. JFAC is also rejecting the idea of giving the Otter administration the go-ahead to make back payments to CenturyLink and Education Networks of America. The state put these payments on hold in November, when Owen first ruled the network contract void. With this ruling still in effect, budget-writers are not willing to give the state the authority to make back payments.
  • No direct payments to school districts. Cameron said the plan will not involve a new state contract — nor direct payments to schools to pursue their own broadband contracts.

The bottom line and scope were also unclear.

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Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint

Cameron said it would take $2.4 million to keep the system online through June 30 — not the $1.6 million originally proposed by Otter. The governor has requested $10.5 million for 2015-16. “That will be an item of discussion,” Cameron said Monday morning.

However, JFAC vice chairwoman Shawn Keough was quick to say the committee might not take up the 2015-16 funding request Tuesday. “It is also safe to say that solutions beyond this school year are still very much in flux,” Keough said in an email.

Cameron was also evasive when asked if the state Department of Administration would still have a role in overseeing the project.

“Define, ‘involved,’” Cameron told reporters.

“Maybe we should see what happens tomorrow,” said Keough, R-Sandpoint.

John Goedde, the former Senate Education Committee chairman who is Otter’s point man on the broadband issue, also was in the dark about the details.

“The co-chairs have not shared whatever they are drafting,” Goedde said in an email Monday. “This is not unusual in the process. We will need to wait and see what comes up.”

Idaho Education Network spokeswoman Camille Wells also declined comment, saying network officials haven’t seen the proposal.

Idaho Education News reporters Clark Corbin and Kevin Richert contributed to this report. 

Check back with Idaho Education News Tuesday morning for more information on this developing story.