JFAC revisits school broadband issue

The Legislature’s budget-writers are back in Boise this week — and on Monday morning, they revisited some of the school technology issues that figured prominently in the 2014 session.

Here’s what the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee heard:

JFAC summer tour
Lawmakers got a firsthand look at how the Idaho Education Network broadband system works — but no clear answers about project funding.

What’s happening with Idaho Education Network funding? No news yet.

The state still isn’t receiving federally administered “e-rate” funding — surcharges on cell phone and landline bills, which cover three-fourths of the broadband program’s budget. The “e-rate” dollars remain on hold amid questions about the Idaho Education Network contract. As a result, the 2014 Legislature forked over $11.4 million to keep the broadband in high schools through February 2015.

The Universal Service Administrative Company is continuing to review the Idaho Education Network contract, and the state had a conference call with officials for the federal contractor on April 4. USAC officials seem receptive to the state’s case, but still a little “skeptical,” Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane said. “At least we’ve got somebody we can talk to at this point.”

But timing is still a concern — as pointed out Monday by Sen. Dean Cameron, a Rupert Republican and JFAC co-chair. The idea of paying the system’s bills through February is to give the funding mess some time to sort out.

What’s happening with the Idaho Education Network contract lawsuit? No news here, either. The 2009 contract remains embroiled in District Court. The state was in court on May 6, arguing for the court to narrow the scope of the lawsuit filed by Syringa Networks, a bidder on the broadband contract. State Administration Department Director Teresa Luna said she believes the court will winnow out some of the scope of the case, but isn’t expecting any movement before August.

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Are some districts maxing out on broadband? Peppered by questions about the Idaho Education Network during the 2014 session, Robyn Lockett did some homework after lawmakers adjourned for the year.

Lockett, a principal budget and policy analyst for the Legislative Services Office, set out to find out how many schools are maxing out their broadband systems. She  found that 51 school districts and charter districts are using at least 75 percent of the broadband the state provides on their behalf. A handful actually use more broadband than the state pays for; some of these districts have to contract with local providers to fill in the blanks.

The Administration Department watches these numbers closely. These maxed-out districts go to the head of the line for upgrades.

The good news: While some districts are using almost all the broadband they have at their disposal, almost all districts have room to add more. Most districts are buying only a tiny fraction of their broadband capacity.

And how is broadband affecting the classroom experience? Budget-writers heard an enthusiastic testimony — over the Internet, fittingly enough — from Michelle Chavez. She’s a 19-year teacher in Weiser High School, and she uses the Idaho Education Network to teach English and communications classes to students from Garden Valley and Emmett to Jerome and Murtaugh. The network has been indispensible in sharing a specialized course she has developed, focusing on Holocaust literature. The broadband system allows Chavez to share her course, and share the stories of Holocaust survivors.

“(The network) is one of my huge passions,” she said.

OK, so what does broadband cost? Lockett calculated the per-pupil, per month costs — and found wide disparities.

In bigger districts, economy of scale kicks in. The cost in Meridian, Idaho’s largest school district, is 38 cents per month per student. In the Riggins-based Salmon River School District, the cost is $211.50 per month per student.

In Chavez’s Weiser school district, the cost comes to $4.19 per student per month.

This is a theoretical look at the numbers: The state doesn’t pay for broadband on a per-student basis — although it does take a per-pupil approach to calculating the cost of wireless Internet service. But the numbers illustrate something that isn’t too surprising: Stringing broadband into smaller districts, and bridging the “digital divide” between urban and rural Idaho, comes at a price.

What’s the latest on the WiFi front? The 2014 Legislature gave school districts flexibility for providing wireless in high schools and junior high schools. Schools could stick with the state’s WiFi contract with Education Networks of America, or they could opt out and receive $21 per student to shop for their own system — and apply any savings to other needs.

Two large districts are weighing their options.

It would cost the Bonneville School District about $180,000 to install a new WiFi system, and the state’s payments would probably cover those costs after three years. After that, the district could use money to improve WiFi coverage in elementary schools. The question is whether the state would continue to provide the $21-per-student stipend in future years, said Scott Woolstenhulme, the district’s director of school improvement and technology.

The Boise School District is going through a similar process as it revisits WiFi service. Replacing the ENA system would cost about $345,000, district technology administrator David Roberts said, and the $21-per-student reimbursement would cover about half the cost.

JFAC’s spring tour continues through Wednesday.