JFAC delays WiFi vote, grants ISEE flexibility

Legislative budget-writers decided Thursday to take their time deciding how to spend $2.25 million for high school WiFi programs.

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Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls

When the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee set the bulk of the school budget Monday, lawmakers asked for three more days to make spending decisions on WiFi and the Idaho System for Educational Excellence, the state’s longitudinal data system.

That set up Thursday as decision day — until Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, said questions over wireless technology infrastructure still linger.

Budget-writers are expected to reconsider WiFi details Friday.

But budget-writers did address the ISEE/Schoolnet issue, unanimously backing a plan to send school districts $2 million to spend on whatever instructional improvement system they want — whether it is Schoolnet or another program.

The money comes with one condition: Whatever system district leaders chose must interface properly with ISEE.

The state will continue to own and operate the Schoolnet system, with Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna having the ability to spend nearly $1.6 million next year maintaining the system. An additional $904,000 was earmarked for buying digital content.

“This is a win-win,” Luna said after the budget meeting. “There are no haves and have-nots under this scenario.”

The state received $21 million in grants from the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation to help launch Schoolnet. That grant expires this year.

The idea is that through ISEE, teachers will have access to timely student data. But some administrators and educators have said they encountered difficulties obtaining the data efficiently – to the point that leaders at least 30 districts have dumped the free Schoolnet system, and have spent their own money on other programs.

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Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome

The WiFi discussion was more contentious.

JFAC Co-chairwoman Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, initially objected to Mortimer’s request to delay the vote. Then she urged committee members to speed things up in order to facilitate adjournment of the legislative session.

“I don’t know how many more times we can go over this,” Bell said. “We have a wonderful new education budget that needs to get moving.”

In the end, Bell withdrew her objection.

“We’re one inch closer (to finishing),” said JFAC Co-Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert.

Disclosure: Idaho Education News is funded through a grant from the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation.