Controversial Wi-Fi contract could come to an end

A statewide school wireless contract — a controversial holdover from the Tom Luna era — could be coming to an end.

The proposed K-12 budget would instead send money out to school districts and charter schools, and allow them to cut their own deals locally.

It’s too early to say whether it will cost more money for schools to draw up their own WiFi contracts — or whether the local deals could be a wash or even a cost-saver. But when high schools had to scramble to find their own broadband services, after the demise of the Idaho Education Network contract, they were able to save money.

“The districts have shown themselves very capable,” Rep. Maxine Bell, the House chairwoman of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, said after Monday morning’s committee vote. “We talk big about local control, and then the pursestrings get in the way.”

The multiyear statewide WiFi contract blindsided Bell and other legislative budget-writers in 2013. Luna and his staff described the contract with Nashville, Tenn.-based Education Networks of America as routine — and said, at $2.25 million a year, that the contract would save the state money. However, four bidders came in below the winning ENA proposal. And even five years later, the surprise contract still left some lawmakers with a bad taste in their mouth, said Bell, R-Jerome.

While schools have already had the option to use state money to finance their own wireless deals, the end of ENA’s five-year contract leaves state leaders at a crossroads.

Gov. Butch Otter and state superintendent Sherri Ybarra both recommended a one-year contract extension, at a cost of $795,000. That request led to a pair of legal opinions — as lawmakers sought their own counsel, and Attorney General Lawrence Wasden’s office wrote an opinion for Ybarra. Both opinions drew a similar conclusion, said Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, a JFAC member who plays a key role in writing K-12 budgets: a one-year contract extension represented a legal gray area.

JFAC voted to give schools a little bit of additional money to pay for wireless. Budget-writers added $500,000 to a $36 million technology line item — and local schools could use this money for a variety of purposes, including wireless.

While Ybarra sought to extend the contract, she downplayed Monday’s vote. And she said her staff will help local schools navigate the contract process.

“My team will be there to prop anybody up if they need it,” Ybarra said. “I don’t anticipate seeing any huge issues.”

JFAC’s education budgets still have to pass the House and Senate before going to Otter’s desk. But if Monday’s committee votes are any indication, the budgets could sail through the Statehouse. The seven separate spending bills passed the House-Senate budget committee on identical 19-0 votes, with limited debate.

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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