Broadband snafu could cost districts nearly $2 million

Idaho school districts could be out close to $2 million, as a result of the latest Idaho Education Network budget snafu.

Fifty-seven school districts and charter schools could stand to lose out on “e-Rate” money — federally administered dollars collected from landline and cell phone bills. The districts were counting on the e-Rate dollars to cover a share of their technology costs on purchases dating back to 2013 and 2014.

However, the Universal Service Administrative Company has written letters to the schools, saying they intend to deny payments. And that decision ties back to the contract for the ill-fated Idaho Education Network, a statewide high school broadband system. Courts have thrown out the network’s $60 million contract.

This means the state did not have a valid agreement allowing the state to collect e-Rate dollars to cover the bulk of Idaho Education Network costs. Citing the flaws in the network contract, and the lack of a legal mechanism to receive e-Rate dollars — USAC turned down the districts’ funding requests as well.

These funding requests appear to cover deals the districts made independently with Education Networks of America, the lead vendor on the Idaho Education Network project. The transactions in question involved services purchased in 2013 and 2014 from ENA — and appeared to be beyond the scope of the Idaho Education Network broadband project itself.

The potential impacts vary widely from district to district, according to documents obtained Tuesday by Idaho Education News. In the Pocatello School District, more than $347,000 of payments are in limbo. Five other districts — American Falls, Emmett, Fremont County, Mountain View and West Bonner County — each sought more than $100,000 in e-Rate payments. On the other end of the spectrum, Central Idaho’s tiny Camas County School District applied for only $467.

The cost figures were compiled by ENA, and released Tuesday by the State Department of Education. (Click here for a district-by-district breakdown of the financial impacts.)

State officials have said little about this latest chapter in the Idaho Education Network budget debacle.

State superintendent Sherri Ybarra has said school districts might want to consult with their lawyers over Idaho’s latest “e-Rate” budget problem.

On May 2, days after school officials began receiving rejection letters from USAC, state superintendent Sherri Ybarra said state leaders were on the case.

“In an effort to support you, we are working with the governor’s office, office of the attorney general, and the Department of Administration on a statewide response regarding this matter,” Ybarra said in a letter to superintendents and charter administrators. “We will work as quickly as we can to provide further direction, and will let you know as soon as possible. It is the intent of all involved to find a solution that best supports Idaho school districts moving forward.”

In the letter, Ybarra said the state has until June 3 to submit a response to USAC. But she offered no details about the state’s “response.”

Since last week, Idaho Education News has sent repeated inquiries to Ybarra’s State Department of Education — seeking details about the scope of the funding problem. Until Tuesday afternoon, the department had said nothing.

“I am still awaiting guidance,” Ybarra spokesman Jeff Church said on Wednesday, six days ago.

Gov. Butch Otter’s office has also said nothing. “We are still trying to get more information from the federal agency,” spokesman Jon Hanian said last week.

Attorney General Lawrence Wasden has declined comment, citing attorney-client privilege. The Department of Administration — the agency that oversaw the failed Idaho Education Network project — has also declined comment.


Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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