(UPDATED, 4:49 p.m., with comment from Gov. Butch Otter’s office.)
Senate Education Committee Chairman John Goedde wants the state to yank funding for a controversial, multiyear high school WiFi contract, according to Betsy Russell of the Spokane Spokesman-Review.
The move sets up a potential budget showdown between a key lawmaker and outgoing state superintendent Tom Luna — and possibly Gov. Butch Otter, although the governor isn’t tipping his hand.
Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, wants to cut off the $2.25 million-a-year funding for the WiFi contract — a budget line item recommended by Otter and Luna. Instead, Goedde would give the funding to school districts to choose their own WiFi providers.
“There may be other businesses locally that could provide a comparable package and have it competitively bid,” Goedde told Russell. “It’s very possible that they could save money … and employ more Idaho people.”
In a statement Tuesday afternoon, Luna stuck behind his plan to continue with the statewide WiFi contract, saying the rollout is consistent with the 20 recommendations from Otter’s education reform task force.
“Superintendent Luna continues to support a statewide contract to implement and support wireless infrastructure in Idaho’s public high schools because that is what the task force recommended,” spokeswoman Melissa McGrath said. “Specifically, the task force stated, ‘We recommend the state expand the existing high speed bandwidth infrastructure to ensure every school (high school, middle school, and elementary school) has the bandwidth and wireless infrastructure necessary for simultaneous equal access and opportunity. This will require ongoing funding for the repair and replenishment of equipment.’”
Luna and Goedde sat on the 31-member task force.
Otter is lobbying legislators for $14.45 million to keep a separate project afloat — one to maintain the Idaho Education Network broadband contract serving some 90,000 students statewide. As far as the WiFi dispute, Otter was noncommittal Tuesday afternoon.
“He is open to discussing with our partners in the Legislature, how this Wi-Fi portion of the equation fits into the overall broadband puzzle,” spokesman Jon Hanian said. “The governor looks forward to working with leaders in the House and Senate like Sen. Goedde, and all parties as we work through these details and determine the best wifi option for our schools.”
Goedde is not the first lawmaker to question the contract — which could extend to 15 years at a cost exceeding $33 million. Like several members of the budget-writing Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, Goedde alleges Luna has used one-year funding to embark on a multiyear commitment.
Education Networks of America, the Nashville, Tenn.-based contractor on the project, has a March 15 deadline for the hookups. Since the contract was awarded in July, 175 high schools and junior high schools have signed up for the WiFi service. Luna has continued to tout the WiFi project — including, most recently, in a Feb. 13 presentation to Goedde’s committee — and says the project is on pace to meet its March 15 deadline.
Garry Lough, ENA’s Idaho director of customer service, did not respond to repeated requests for comment Tuesday.