JFAC votes to stick with local broadband contracts

With many school districts saving big money by securing their own broadband contracts, legislative budget-writers want to stick with this plan.

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee Monday voted to give state superintendent Sherri Ybarra’s office $6.3 million to reimburse schools for broadband service in 2015-16.

The $6.3 million plan would still need to pass both houses before going to Gov. Butch Otter’s desk. But it’s modeled after the $3.6 million broadband bailout used to keep high-speed Internet in Idaho high schools through the rest of the academic year — and June 30, the end of the state’s budget year.

Districts were forced to scramble to cut their own broadband contracts, after District Judge Patrick Owen voided the 2009 contract for the statewide Idaho Education Network broadband system.

So far, it appears that many districts have gotten a better deal on their own.

Ninety-three of the state’s 129 school districts and charter high schools have reported their contract information to the State Department of Education. On average, these districts are paying $381,931 per month for broadband — a 21.6 percent savings from the $487,034 per month on the voided Idaho Education Network contract.

On top of that, many districts are purchasing more broadband for less money. The 93 districts and charters now have 8,688 megabits per second of bandwidth — up from the 6,023 Mbps provided under the statewide network contract. The districts are paying $43.96 per Mbps, a 45.6 percent savings from the $80.87 per Mbps under the Idaho Education Network contract.

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Monday is the deadline for districts to submit their information on broadband contracts. Idaho Education News has requested a full breakdown of the contracts and the costs.

While the local contracts are saving the state money, they are still seen as a stopgap — so at this point, the $6.3 million appears to be a one-shot proposition.

“This funding is intended to protect Idaho’s schoolchildren and their education from disruption while the state works on a longer-term solution to pay for Internet-based curriculum and connectivity,” according to legislative “intent language” that will be attached to the spending bill.

The state has sought information from would-be bidders on a long-term broadband contract. This isn’t expected to be in place until July 2016.

The idea of extending the local broadband contracts is not necessarily a surprise. In a luncheon question-and-answer session with reporters last week, House Speaker Scott Bedke suggested the Legislature might simply extend the local, short-term contracts.

In other business, JFAC agreed to give districts some help paying for other services they purchased as an add-on to the defunct Idaho Education Network program.

At least a handful of districts are facing a steep cost hike for services such as wide area network technology. They were banking on a 75 percent discount through federally administered “e-Rate” payments — but when the Idaho Education Network lost its e-Rate match during the contract dispute, districts lost the match as well.

JFAC agreed to reimburse these districts for their losses — with the money coming from the $3.6 million bailout for 2014-15.

This reimbursement plan would still have to pass both houses and go to Otter’s desk.

More reading: A closer look at the new numbers, in Kevin Richert’s blog. Here’s more from the JFAC hearing from Betsy Russell of the Spokane Spokesman-Review.