Idaho state schools chief Tom Luna is about to sign a 15-year, multimillion-dollar sole-source contract for a private firm to set up WiFi networks in every high school in the state – even though the Legislature never approved the move, and legislative leaders who learned of it from a reporter Tuesday were shocked. Luna is scheduled to award the contract Wednesday; the three finalists include Education Networks of America, a firm that was awarded a contract, later canceled, under the voter-rejected Students Come First laws last year to do the very same thing. ENA was a subcontractor to Hewlett-Packard, which would have provided laptop computers to every Idaho high school student.
“It was part of a Senate bill that we should do a statewide contract,” said Melissa McGrath, Luna’s spokeswoman. But the only bill she cited was SB 1200, the public school budget. It allocated $2.25 million to set up wireless infrastructure in Idaho high schools next year, and said nothing about a long-term contract. “We did not agree and probably would not have agreed to a multi-year contract during last session, particularly given the financial straits that we believed we were under,” said Idaho Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert. “This shows in my opinion a little bit of a lack of judgment.”
He called the suggestion that SB 1200 authorized the contract “certainly a stretch, and perhaps borderline on a lack of honesty, because there was no provision in SB 1200 that addressed it. … There’s no germane committee legislation that addressed it.” Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, the House Appropriations chairwoman, said, “My word – how can they? That doesn’t sound like the budget I set every year, which dies, positively dies out of money on the 30th of June.” They and other legislative leaders and JFAC members said they thought the appropriation was just for “seed money” to help some districts get WiFi up and running in their high schools next year.
To make matters worse, the State Department of Education’s request for proposals for the big contract specifies that the successful vendor will own all the equipment it installs in roughly 340 Idaho high schools. And if the contract is canceled for any reason – including because the Legislature doesn’t ante up in future years – it’d be required to “de-install” all that equipment, ripping the wireless networks back out of the schools. Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, said, “If the contract says the vendor owns the equipment, then where are what we spent our $2.25 million dollars for?” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.