Lawmakers recommend state broadband committee

Earlier this year, the State Department of Education helped districts through the Idaho Education Network broadband debacle.

And a committee of legislators would like to see this working relationship continue. The lawmakers would like the state to provide counsel and support to school districts as they shop for Internet services.

On Monday, the Legislature’s Broadband Access Study Committee met in Boise to delve into the finer details of the Internet issue.

The key recommendation from the morning’s three-hour discussion: Lawmakers want to see a seven-member committee work with districts as they shop for high-speed Internet.

The committee would have some specific roles. For example, it could help districts apply for “e-Rate” funding — federally administered cell phone and landline surcharges that can cover the bulk of a school’s broadband bill. However, the committee would not provide legal advice to districts.

The eight-member committee would include the state schools superintendent, or a representative; the president of the State Board of Education, or a representative; a superintendent from a large school district; a small district superintendent; a representative of Idaho’s libraries; and three technical experts. The State Department of Education would have jurisdiction over the committee.

In February, after Ada County District Judge Patrick Owen voided the $60 million Idaho Education Network contract, school districts had only a matter of days to secure local broadband contracts. The State Department of Education received praise from lawmakers for helping districts through the sudden transition.

Evidently, that recent history was on lawmakers’ minds Monday, as they voted to put the Education Department in charge of the state’s committee.

The Legislature’s broadband committee has been meeting since July to study school and state broadband needs. Its role is advisory in nature: Any proposed legislation would still have to pass both houses before going to Gov. Butch Otter.

Last month, the committee recommended leaving districts in charge of securing broadband, rejecting the concept of another statewide Internet system in the image of the Idaho Education Network. For 2015-16, district contracts for high school broadband are expected to come in $5 million below budget — and well below the $7 million budgeted by lawmakers, and well below the Idaho Education Network’s costs.