Luna awards controversial WiFi deal

In the face of criticism from some key legislators, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna on Wednesday awarded a five-year contract to install high-speed wireless Internet access in Idaho high schools.

The contract — awarded to Education Networks of America of Nashville, Tenn. — will be worth more than $2 million. The Legislature earmarked $2.25 million for the wireless project in 2013-14, but that could be just a first installment. The contract could run for up to 15 years, costing at least $2.25 million per year.

The announcement, made late Wednesday afternoon, capped a whirlwind 24 hours, as the wireless contract came under late scrutiny — with two legislative budget-writers saying lawmakers never intended to award a multiyear wireless contract.

In a news release, Luna defended both the contract process — and the longterm objective.

“As a state, it is our goal and our responsibility to ensure every child has equal access to the best educational opportunities, no matter where they live. To accomplish this, we have to equip every public high school with the advanced technology and tools necessary to create these opportunities,” he said.

Contract details

The contract with ENA runs for five years, with two options for the state to renew — or lengthen — the deal. Each option is for five years, so the deal could run 15 years.

State officials say the multiyear, renewable contracts are standard practice. “The majority of the contracts we write are multiyear contracts,” said Jennifer Pike, assistant to the director for the State Department of Administration.

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“The optional renewal periods also give both parties the opportunity to review the contract and services, and determine if the arrangement in place is still working,” she said

The WiFi contract also includes a “non-appropriations” clause, which is also standard contract language. At the end of any fiscal year, the Legislature can decide not to fund the project, and the state can opt out without penalty.

The state will also save money, Luna spokeswoman Melissa McGrath said Wednesday, since the company is leasing and managing the equipment.

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Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert

“It would be much more costly for the state to buy the infrastructure,” McGrath said. “Second, technology changes so quickly that three years from now we would have to replace the equipment. This way, we make it the responsibility of the vendor to replace and maintain the technology.”

‘A lack of honesty?’

Two key legislative budget-writers expressed concerns about the multi-year contract to Betsy Russell of the Spokane Spokesman-Review, who broke the story Tuesday. Sen. Dean Cameron, co-chairman of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, said the deal borders on “a lack of honesty.” His House counterpart, Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, was also taken aback. “My word — how can they? That doesn’t sound like the budget I set every year, which dies, positively dies out of money on the 30th of June.”

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Sen. Brent Hill, R-Rexburg

Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill is withholding judgment on the contract. He says a lease arrangement may be the best deal for the state — and he says the state routinely enters into leases on buildings that allow the Legislature to opt out without a penalty. But he is concerned about the process — and the lack of information.

“I wish this had been laid out for the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee and/or the germane education committees,” Hill told Idaho Education News Wednesday.

Idaho Education News is also seeking comment from Sen. John Goedde and Rep. Reed DeMordaunt, chairs of the Senate and House education committees.

Gov. Butch Otter was traveling Wednesday and was unavailable to comment, spokesman Jon Hanian said. House Speaker Scott Bedke is out of state and was unavailable for comment.

The contractor — and its task

ENA is no stranger to Idaho classrooms — or to the state’s politicians.

Since 2009, ENA has been the lead contractor on the Idaho Education Network, which provides broadband Internet access to every Idaho public high school.

Since then, the company has donated $38,750 to statewide and legislative candidates, including $6,000 to Luna and $4,250 to Otter. (Check Kevin Richert’s blog for a detailed rundown.)

ENA’s bid for the WiFi contract came in below the state’s budget, at $2,111,655 per year.

So far, nearly 50 school districts have asked for this high-speed wireless installation. The WiFi program is voluntary and requests will be taken until Aug. 1. Schools that opt in for the service should have WiFi in place by March, according to the Education Department.

Disclaimer: Jennifer Pike works for Teresa Luna, who is the director of the Department of Administration and is the sister of Tom Luna, the state superintendent of public instruction.

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