Report: State has ‘sunk’ $61 million into Schoolnet

(UPDATED, 4:20 p.m., with budget information from the State Department of Education.)

The state has “sunk” about $61 million into a flawed statewide instructional management system, and now has few options going forward.

That’s the conclusion of a state report criticizing the Schoolnet project — a system that was supposed to provide teachers with real-time data on student development and growth.

“Poor management, poor decisions and poor system functionality compounded themselves and prevented the goals for a statewide instructional management system from being realized,” wrote Rakesh Mohan, director of the state’s Office of Performance Evaluations, in a report released Monday.

Sen. Roy Lacey and then-Sen. John Goedde requested a Schoolnet review in 2014, in response to growing pushback over the project. The 57-page report quantifies the costs of the project — and outlines problems with the rollout.

System costs

Schoolnet was launched in 2011, funded in part by a $21 million grant from the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation. The state pledged $57 million for the project — matching funding and money for classroom technology. This money was earmarked from former state superintendent Tom Luna’s Proposition 3, the public school overhaul passed by the 2011 Legislature and rejected by voters in November 2012.

In 2013, the foundation requested a third-party review, which found “significant problems” with Schoolnet’s functionality and the department’s management of the project. “The foundation found the department’s progress to be unsatisfactory and ultimately terminated the grant agreement, withholding approximately $1.1 million of the remaining funds, according to the report, released Monday morning by the Legislature’s Joint Legislative Oversight Committee.

Factoring in taxpayer and foundation funding, the state has spent $61 million on the project, with about $10 million spent on Schoolnet software and maintenance.

Originally, the state signed a $900,000 contract with Pearson Education Inc., the vendor of the Schoolnet system. In 2011, the department expanded the contract to $10 million.

Annual maintenance of the project is about $2.5 million. However, state superintendent Sherri Ybarra has proposed cutting the Schoolnet budget to $985,000 in 2015-16. The department wants to abandon the concept of a statewide system, said Pete Koehler, Ybarra’s chief deputy, while keeping Schoolnet online for the districts that have managed to make the system work.

The statewide rollout

The central problem with the rollout was in its reach. Instructional management systems such as Schoolnet are generally designed to work on the district level. Pearson had no experience running Schoolnet on a statewide level — or linking its system to a statewide longitudinal data system to collect student data.

“The former superintendent’s vision and design for a centralized statewide instructional management system overreached the capabilities of existing software,” according to the report.

The idea of a statewide rollout had raised red flags with potential funders. The federal government rejected a state request for funding, and the Albertson Foundation rejected two grant requests from the state. “The department continued to pursue funding for the instructional management system despite outside concerns about the project proposal,” the OPE says in its report.

The foundation agreed to provide a grant in 2011, when the state committed funding under the law that would later come to be known as Proposition 3.

Other problems dogged the implementation. In 2012, the State Department of Education decided to make the Schoolnet system available to all school districts — not just the 51 school districts and six charter schools that signed up to pilot the project. These districts did not have adequate training, said Mohan, and the State Department of Education has conceded it was a mistake to try to roll out the system beyond the pilot districts.

The 2014 Legislature provided school districts with $2 million to pursue the instructional management system of their choice. Ybarra’s budget request would increase this sum to $2.6 million in 2015-16.

Pointed reactions

JLOC members of both parties were taken aback by the report’s findings.

Batt New
Rep. Gayle Batt, R-Wilder

Rep. Gayle Batt called the results “sickening,” and said the $61 million “would have gone a long ways towards roads.”

Rep. John Rusche, D-Lewiston, said the report represented another costly, failed multimillion dollar state contract. “It’s more than disheartening.”

Koehler minced no words in the department’s formal response to the report. The idea of a statewide instructional management system was “at best naïve,” he said. “The implementation of Schoolnet was bound to be unsuccessful from Day One.”

Said Will Goodman, Ybarra’s chief technology officer: “We believe the OPE report was fair.”

Pete Koehler
Pete Koehler

In his written response, Gov. Butch Otter said his education task force looked into the Schoolnet system, and “preliminarily concluded that a single system such as Schoolnet may not be in districts’ best interests.”

Albertson Foundation officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.

More reading: Links to the OPE news release and a one-page highlight sheet.

Disclosure: Idaho Education News is funded through a grant from the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation.