In Pocatello, broadband mess could short-circuit textbook purchases

POCATELLO — The Pocatello-Chubbuck School District stands to lose $347,000, which could have a tremendous impact on much-needed textbook purchases, Superintendent Doug Howell says.

Recently, Idaho Education News broke the story that 57 Idaho districts and charter schools could lose nearly $2 million in federally administered “e-Rate” money. The Universal Service Administration Company (USAC), a federal contractor that distributes e-Rate dollars, has said it intends to reject payments to Idaho schools, a decision stemming from the Idaho Education Network broadband contract, which the Idaho Supreme Court voided in March.

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Pocatello Superintendent Doug Howell

Districts’ funding requests generally involve add-on technology purchases made through Education Networks of America. The Pocatello-Chubbuck District purchased a wide area network service through ENA in 2013-14. The WAN  links the district’s buildings via fiber optic cable and handles delivery of various web applications and other phone and internet services.

ENA delivers the services much “cheaper” than previous providers, Howell said, so the district is still using the WAN.

If the reimbursement doesn’t come through, the district will probably pull money from its operational funds. The 2016 Legislature restored districts’ operational funding to pre-recession levels.

Pocatello’s operational dollars are needed most for textbooks. New elementary school social studies and English texts could cost $420,000 to $450,000, while secondary-level math textbooks could run as high as $300,000. Some of the district’s current textbooks date back to 1997, Howell said, and new textbooks are needed to align with Idaho Core Standards.

State superintendent Sherri Ybarra has said districts should consult their lawyers, but Howell said the district will rely on the State Department of Education and the state attorney general’s office to pursue the matter.

The potential financial impacts stemming from the lack of reimbursements vary widely, according to documents obtained by Idaho Education News. The Pocatello district stands to lose the most money. Five other districts — American Falls, Emmett, Fremont County, Mountain View and West Bonner County — each sought more than $100,000 from e-Rate.

The cost figures were compiled by ENA, the lead vendor on the failed Idaho Education Network project, and released by the State Department of Education. (Click here for a district-by-district breakdown of the financial impacts.)