The school broadband budget plan, explained

Legislative budget-writers moved several million dollars around Tuesday morning in a last-minute bid to save broadband in Idaho high schools.

But it’s going to be up to school administrators to find someone to provide broadband locally. And there’s no guarantee service will continue past this weekend — when the statewide Idaho Education Network could go dark.

Let’s take an in-depth look at what the Legislature did Tuesday, and what happens next:

Cameron, 2.17.15
Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, explains the broadband budget proposal to reporters Tuesday morning.

First things first: Will this keep broadband in the schools? Maybe. But even the architect of the spending plan says there may be disruption.

“We hope districts heeded our warning early,” said Sen. Dean Cameron, co-chairman of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, after budget-writers approved a spending plan designed to maintain broadband through June 30.

According to an Idaho Education Technology Association survey, 42 percent of schools do not think they can get back online within a month — and 11 percent don’t think they can get back online until the end of the school year.

“Districts that don’t have contracts right now for alternatives to the (network), that’s part of the delay, because they’ve got to get contracts in place before they can do anything with the physical equipment,” John Goedde, Gov. Butch Otter’s point man on the broadband mess, said after briefing the House Education Committee Tuesday morning.

What will this cost? The deal moves $3,640,500 into state superintendent Sherri Ybarra’s budget. It’ll be up to Ybarra’s office to reimburse school districts for the broadband service they procure for the rest of the school year.

Ybarra’s office will have to file monthly reports with Gov. Butch Otter’s office and legislative leadership.

Is there more to the deal? Yes. It would slash $5,052,000 from the Department of Administration’s budget for 2014-15. This represents money that the 2014 Legislature appropriated for the Idaho Education Network. But the Department of Administration has been sitting on this money for months. When District Judge Patrick Owen tossed out the broadband contract in November, the state put payments to contractors on hold.

Is this a power shift? For the short term, maybe. It moves the embattled Administration Department out of the school broadband equation, for the short term. That doesn’t necessarily signal a long-term shift, Cameron said Tuesday morning, but he conceded that budget-writers felt more confident working with the State Department of Education.

“The decision really settled on who could best help school districts,” he said.

What do school districts need to do? They need to start shopping for broadband vendors — if they haven’t started doing so already. That isn’t exactly a new development. The Education Department has been urging districts to prepare to go it alone. Some districts already purchase broadband or supplemental high-speed service on their own, anyway.

School districts are encouraged to pursue two contracts: an emergency, short-term contract for the rest of this school year, and a separate one-year or month-to-month contract for 2015-16. Districts are also encouraged to apply for federally administered “e-Rate” dollars by Feb. 26.

Will districts be able to find vendors? That’s an open question. But there’s nothing precluding districts from cutting short-term deals with Education Networks of America and CenturyLink, the contractors on the floundering Idaho Education Network project.

In fact, the network vendors could actually wind up making more money doing business with the local districts, said Paul Headlee, a state budget analyst. Conversely, the vendors could also make less.

ENA CEO David Pierce promptly fired off a letter to district officials, soliciting a share of the business. “ENA is willing to continue service in a direct relationship with school districts and is working as quickly as possible with CenturyLink to determine if that will be possible.”

What about the state’s debts to Idaho Education Network vendors? This budget deal doesn’t address unpaid debts. The $3.6 million can be used only on broadband service from February through June 30, not back debt. Under state law, agencies cannot pay money on an illegal contract.

The state owes ENA $3.7 million for high school broadband — and, in turn, ENA owes CenturyLink a little over $1 million. The state owes CenturyLink an additional $540,000 to provide broadband to state agencies, a separate component of the Idaho Education Network project.

What about Sunday’s deadline? CenturyLink is driving some of this last-minute rush to secure broadband. On Jan. 23, CenturyLink send a letter demanding payment from ENA within 30 days. Whether CenturyLink follows through on its threat to pull broadband, the specter of a shutdown looms large in this spending showdown.

What happens if broadband goes dark? The implications could be far-reaching. It could affect online classes offered between schools across a district, or even from one time zone to the next. A shutdown could disrupt the Idaho Standards Achievement Test by Smarter Balanced; the online testing period begins March 30. Schools also use broadband for staff email, reporting grades and attendance and submitting academic data to state and federal governments.

What’s the legislative process? The JFAC spending plan has to pass both the Senate and the House before it goes to Otter’s desk. Cameron doesn’t think the spending plan needs to be signed into law this week. Having a plan in place should provide school districts with a plan of action.

What’s the reaction? The budget plans passed JFAC with bipartisan and overwhelming support; only state Rep. John Gannon, D-Boise, voted against shifting $3.6 million to Ybarra’s office.

Idaho Education Network officials need to review the budget request, spokeswoman Camille Wells said.

Goedde attended Tuesday’s JFAC meeting but left quickly after adjournment. Afterwards, he too was noncommittal, saying he needs to read the language.

“We were given the handout at the same time you were and have not had time to go through them in detail as yet,” he said in an email.

What is Otter’s role in this process? Otter had been absent from the Statehouse since undergoing hip replacement surgery Jan. 20. Otter returned to work Thursday, spokesman Jon Hanian said.

During Otter’s recovery, Goedde said he met with Otter twice at the governor’s ranch to discuss the issue. The two have met daily since Otter returned to work.

“I would characterize that as he is engaged,” Goedde said.

Idaho Education News reporter Clark Corbin contributed to this report.

More coverage: Here’s our in-depth coverage on the looming Idaho Education Network shutdown.