The big wireless contract awarded to Education Networks of America this afternoon – to provide WiFi in every Idaho high school at a cost to the state of up to $35.5 million over the next 15 years – is a “standard practice” approach, the State Department of Education said in its news release announcing the award. But the head of the state’s Division of Purchasing says otherwise.
Melissa McGrath, SDE spokeswoman, said the multi-year contract idea is “something that we began under Students Come First. The idea was to connect every high school to wireless, and we had a contract for it.” That was cancelled after voters rejected the Students Come First reform laws last November. But now, she said, “The Legislature decided … to move forward with it. So we have been directed to move forward with wireless technology for every public high school. The only way to do that for $2.25 million is through a statewide contract. But there is a non-appropriation clause, so we can discuss this every year going forward.”
The Legislature actually only authorized $2.25 million for wireless infrastructure in the next year; it didn’t authorize a multi-year contract. But McGrath said a “non-appropriation clause” saying the contract would be canceled if the Legislature didn’t appropriate funds in future years takes care of that. “That’s pretty standard,” she said. “State agencies sign multi-year contracts with non-appropriation clauses all the time.”
Bill Burns, administrator of the state Division of Purchasing in the Department of Administration, said his division won’t begin the process of issuing a multi-year contract until the agency in question certifies that it has the funding to cover the full cost of the contract over time. “They have to say they have funding for the value of the contract over the contract life,” Burns said. “If we don’t get that, we don’t even start the process for writing an RFP or whatever it is, an invitation to bid or whatever. That’s our absolute starting point right there.”
All contracts issued through the Division of Purchasing do include a standard exit clause for if the state does not appropriate sufficient funds. If that happens, Burns said, “The contract’s null and void, because we’re a balanced budget state.”
He noted that all state elected officials – including state Schools Superintendent Tom Luna and his department – are exempt from Division of Purchasing contracting rules and the division’s review process, though they can request help. The only reason the division handled the giant Students Come First laptop computer contract was because the “Students Come First” laws specifically required it to do so.