The state will rebid its disputed Idaho Education Network broadband contract — but in the meantime, districts may be pursuing their own funding to keep their schools wired.
The scramble for dollars will likely keep lawmakers and local school administrators busy at least until late March.
On Monday morning — and before today’s official launch of the 2015 legislative session — the committee overseeing the broadband project met to discuss money and legal strategy.
The committee was told the state cannot expect to receive project funds from a Federal Communications Commission contractor unless it rebids its network contract, which has been locked in a legal dispute since 2009.
“I believe we’re working in that direction,” said John Goedde, the former Senate Education Committee chairman hired by Gov. Butch Otter to help untangle the state’s Gordian knot of broadband funding and legal issues.
But it’s unclear how quickly the state can move. That answer is intertwined with the state’s continuing attempts to defend the Idaho Education Network contract. The network’s Program Resource Advisory Council, or IPRAC, discussed the lawsuit Monday morning in a closed executive session.
In essence, the state and districts both face the same deadline. They must apply for federally administered “e-Rate” dollars by March 26, or go without the matching funds for a year.
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The state could feasibly complete the request for bids in time. But legal issues could bog down the process, said Will Goodman, recently hired as state superintendent Sherri Ybarra’s chief technology officer.
District Judge Patrick Owen voided the state’s broadband contract in November. The state has appealed to Owen to clarify or reconsider his ruling, as have current project contractors CenturyLink and Education Networks of America.
With the contract in limbo, state officials are encouraging districts to apply for e-Rate dollars on their own.
“This should not be interpreted as an indication that the network is being dissolved, we do want to be proactive about ensuring that Idaho school districts are held harmless no matter the outcome of legal or legislative action,” state officials said in a letter Friday to district superintendents, principals and administrators.
In order to apply for “e-Rate” dollars, districts must complete a competitive bidding process by March 26.
And some districts would stand to receive more “e-Rate” funding than others. Poorer districts, with a high number of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, could receive 90 percent of their funding through the feds. In more affluent districts, the feds might cover only about 50 percent of broadband costs, Goodman said.
For several years, the state received about 75 percent of its broadband funding from “e-Rate,” a monthly surcharge collected on cell phone and landline bills. But the state hasn’t received payments since 2013; the Universal Service Administrative Company, an FCC contractor, put the state’s money on hold, as a result of the contract lawsuit.
More reading: Legislative leaders urge state to rebid broadband contract.