Winning WiFi bidder touts Idaho, political ties

In a successful bid for a multiyear, multimillion dollar Idaho WiFi contract, Education Networks of America repeatedly touted its work on the Idaho Education Network broadband project.

The bid also makes several references to the Nashville, Tenn.-based company’s connections in Idaho political circles.

The 308-page proposal was made public Friday — two days after state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna awarded ENA a controversial contract to install WiFi service in Idaho high schools and junior high schools. The five-year contract is worth more than $2.1 million in its first year, but could extend to 15 years, with a total value of close to $33.3 million. (Click on The EDge blog for more details about the contract.)

Some legislators have questioned the deal, saying they did not realize Luna was contemplating a multiyear agreement with a contractor. Other critics have pointed out that ENA has contributed $6,000 to Luna’s campaign war chest since 2009 — the year the company became lead contractor on the Idaho Education Network project. ENA has also contributed $4,250 to Gov. Butch Otter, and 42 current legislators have also received contributions from ENA.

The Idaho Education Network project — providing broadband connectivity in every Idaho high school — was a touchstone in the ENA bid.

At one point, ENA hails the Idaho Education Network as “one of the flagship accomplishments” of the Otter and Luna administrations, and then touts its own work. “We completed the project nearly one year ahead of schedule and delivered more capacity than originally anticipated all while the project is running approximately 16 percent below budget.”

The Idaho Education Network project is not the only work cited in ENA’s bid: the company cites work for school systems in Virginia, Indiana, Memphis, Tenn., and Boise. But ENA also says the broadband project makes it “the most knowledgeable, reliable, ready and equipped provider” to install WiFi in Idaho high schools and junior high schools.

The bid also includes biographical backgrounds of ENA executives and staffers, including two key players with extensive ties in Idaho Republican circles.

Garry Lough — ENA’s Idaho director of customer service, is identified as “the highest level ENA executive in Idaho.” The biographical sketch also points out more political pieces of Lough’s resume: a two-year stint as Idaho Republican Party executive director, from 2004 to 2006; and work in 2007 as Luna’s deputy of legislative affairs.

Martin Bilbao is listed as an Idaho account services manager, “responsible for building relationships in Idaho with key individuals throughout the school corporations, public libraries, and with members of the education and public sector community.” Bilbao, a former lobbyist, was the Idaho GOP’s political and financial director from 2006 to 2007, and managed Lt. Gov. Brad Little’s successful 2010 campaign.

A second Idaho account services manager, Michael Vance, has no apparent ties in Idaho politics.

The ENA bid even plays up an Idaho political connection that never came to fruition. In October 2012, the company was selected as a subcontractor in a multiyear technology contract that also would have provided all Idaho high school students with laptop computers. That contract was voided last November, when voters rejected Proposition 3, the technology component in Luna’s Students Come First education overhaul.

“As a team member of the award of Idaho’s Student Come First (sic) initiative last year, ENA understands the breadth, scope and importance of Superintendent Luna’s vision for education.”

ENA was chosen unanimously by a nine-member review team, which considered bids from nine vendors. Luna himself was not on the review committee, but four Education Department staffers were on the panel.

In a news release announcing the contract Wednesday, the Education Department praised ENA’s history of working with the state, on what it called the “successful” Idaho Education Network project.

Otter, meanwhile, remains silent on the contract. He is attending a Republican Governors Association meeting this week, spokesman Jon Hanian said Friday.

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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