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Eye On Boise

Posts tagged: Idaho Education Network

Stung by IEN mess, lawmakers hail stricter rules for state contract oversight

Idaho’s state Division of Purchasing is making progress toward better monitoring of multimillion-dollar state contracts, according to a new state report to lawmakers. Incensed over big problems with big contracts, lawmakers have passed four pieces of legislation in the past two years calling for better oversight; as a result, the division has developed enhanced monitoring requirements for service contracts that are worth $5 million or more over the life of the contract, along with other measures. Though that figure accounts for just 45 current contracts, it covers $2.6 billion in state funding commitments.

“That’s big bucks – billions,” said Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, co-chair of the Legislature’s joint budget committee and a member of the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee, which today received the new report from the Legislature’s Office of Performance Evaluations. She said lawmakers were spurred by problems with the multimillion-dollar contract the state Department of Administration signed with Education Networks of America for a broadband network to connect state high schools; this year, that contract for the Idaho Education Network ended up costing the state millions more than expected due to questions over the original contract award holding up federal “e-rate” payments that were supposed to cover three-quarters of the cost.

“I think the eyes opened,” Bell said. “There were details that were troublesome.” Big contracts like that are happening at “all levels of government, and no one was paying attention,” she said.

Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, JLOC co-chair, said, “Clearly we’ve had some difficulties, and I’m very happy that people are paying attention. We’re going to have to very carefully monitor our progress on this and make sure that we’re getting results. I would say we’re part-way there … but I wouldn’t say we’re at the finish line yet.”

The new report, a follow-up to one issued in January of 2013 on how the state could strengthen its contract management, notes that an array of contracts still are exempt from state purchasing rules – those issued by the Legislature, the judiciary, and under the offices of statewide elected officials like the state schools superintendent. The 2013 report called for lawmakers to consider setting minimum standards for all state contracting, including those areas, but no legislation was introduced. Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, said today that he’s working with a group of lawmakers to address that and is hoping for bipartisan backing.

As a result of the legislation already passed, Bill Burns, head of the state Division of Purchasing, said administrative rule changes are in the works and will be presented to lawmakers in January to follow an array of recommendations from the 2013 report, from developing best practices for all agencies in contracting; to adding more oversight of big contracts, including from the division, the agency, and outside subject-matter experts; to notifying the Legislature prior to contract extensions and renewals. Burns said the division will ask lawmakers next year for a new training position to ensure the new requirements can be carried out; if the Legislature expands the division’s oversight to now-exempt agencies, it may need another position as well, he said.

Ringo said, “This is a direction we need to go, and I think that we’re making progress.”

Federal e-rate changes could benefit Idaho school WiFi, but offer no help for IEN mess

Changes to the federal e-rate system could make money available to Idaho’s public schools to offset the costs of providing WiFi services for Idaho schools and libraries in the future, reports Kevin Richert of Idaho Education News. The federal money could help Idaho expand WiFi services to middle and elementary schools, he writes; you can read his full report here.

However, the e-rate changes in the works at the federal level offer no solution to Idaho’s continuing e-rate problem with the Idaho Education Network, Richert reports. The federal funds, which come from a surcharge on phone service, were supposed to pay for three-quarters of that broadband network that connects every Idaho high school. But the feds cut off payments in March of 2013 out of concern over whether Idaho illegally awarded the IEN contract, which is involved in litigation.

Still no answer on missing e-rate funds for Idaho Education Network, but some contacts made

Idaho still has no answer on more than $14 million in missing federal e-rate funding for the broadband network that links all the state’s high schools, but officials say they’re at least in contact with federal officials now. State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee today that he brought the issue up with the chairman of the FCC when the two spoke at the same conference a couple of months ago; in a phone call an hour later, “He said he had directed USAC to engage with us, and they did,” Luna said. “It definitely got the attention of USAC.”

That’s the agency that administers the federal e-rate funds, which come from telephone fees and were supposed to pay for three-quarters of the cost of the Idaho Education Network; it’s called the Universal Service Administrative Company. Last year, lawmakers learned to their surprise that the federal money had stopped flowing due to concerns about a lawsuit challenging the award of the contract for the IEN to Education Networks of America and Qwest; that stuck the state with the full tab, at least for now.

Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane told the lawmakers, who were gathered at Boise High School as part of a three-day interim meeting, that the Attorney General’s office has had a conference call and sent some letters. “They seem somewhat receptive, but they’re also skeptical,” he said. “We’ve got someone that we can talk to, at this point.” Kane said the state’s trying to impress upon the federal agency the point that the services are being provided – funds haven’t been hijacked to buy someone a yacht or anything. It’s just that there’s a dispute between parties who wanted to be the ones to provide the service to schools. “Generally, they’re looking for some sort of fraudulent conduct,” he said.

Teresa Luna, director of the state Department of Administration, said the lawsuit, filed by unsuccessful bidder Syringa Networks, is continuing; a hearing on several motions in the case was held May 6, and a ruling on those is expected in a couple of weeks. “I don’t expect that we’ll hear from USAC before … mid-August,” she said. “It is still our first priority.”

JFAC Co-Chair Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said after the briefing, “In some ways it’s heartening. I’m a little disappointed we haven’t made more headway with the lawsuit, but it sounds to me like the appropriate contacts have been made with USAC so we can at least make our case.” Lawmakers have agreed to cover the missing federal funds only through February; if the issue isn’t resolved by then, they’d have to ante up millions more or see the broadband network connecting the state’s high schools go dark.

FCC says it’s holding IEN e-rate funds because of March Idaho Supreme Court decision

An FCC spokesman told Eye on Boise this afternoon that the federal agency has been holding up millions in federal “e-rate” funds for the Idaho Education Network since March in light of last spring’s Idaho Supreme Court decision in the Syringa case, while the agency investigates whether the IEN contract followed federal procurement rules, and there’s no telling how long that review might take. In that case, Syringa Networks sued over the state’s contract award for IEN.

The 2009 lawsuit contended that then-Idaho Department of Administration Director Mike Gwartney improperly cut Syringa Networks out of $60 million in business when he awarded the IEN contract to Qwest, now known as CenturyLink. Syringa had partnered with Education Networks of America to try to win the big contract; Gwartney awarded it to Qwest and ENA. Though Syringa was mostly unsuccessful at the lower court level, on March 29, 2013, the Idaho Supreme Court resurrected the case on a key claim: That the bidding process violated state law regarding purchases by the state Division of Purchasing. The high court, in a unanimous decision authored by Justice Dan Eismann, remanded the case back to district court for further proceedings on that question; it’s still in progress there.

“All contracts made in violation of these statutes are void and any money advanced by the State in consideration of such contracts must be repaid,” Eismann wrote in the ruling, citing Idaho Code.

Originally, Syringa and ENA submitted the highest-scoring bid for the IEN contract, scoring 856 out of 1,000 points on six specific criteria. Qwest partnered with Verizon and submitted the second-highest-scoring bid at 635 points. The state awarded the contract to both bidders, saying no one firm could serve the full geography of the state. Then, it issued change orders, amending the contract to divide the work not geographically but by function, with Qwest to provide the technical network, or “backbone” – which is what Syringa had proposed to do for ENA – and ENA to be e-rate contractor. That was what Verizon was proposed to do in the original Qwest bid.

“Qwest became the exclusive provider of what Syringa was to provide as a subcontractor of ENA,” Eismann wrote. “The amendments to the purchase orders issued to ENA and Qwest were, in effect, changing the RFP after the bids were opened.” You can read the full Idaho Supreme Court decision here.

Here’s the odd thing: State Department of Administration Director Teresa Luna told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee this morning that she wasn’t sure why the FCC was withholding the funds, and could only speculate on the reason, based on the questions the federal agency had asked the state over the past months. The agency responded reasonably promptly to reporters this afternoon, pointing to the Idaho Supreme Court decision and saying it “is in regular contact with the relevant state officials, and is holding funding while it determines whether the E-rate program rules were violated.” Luna told JFAC an earlier email from the FCC to her department misstated the Supreme Court’s ruling.

New IEN director says project a year ahead of schedule, under budget

Cliff Green, the new executive director of the Idaho Education Network, told the “Students Come First” school technology task force this morning that later this week, state schools Supt. Tom Luna and Gov. Butch Otter will be in St. Maries for a ceremony to mark all Idaho school districts being connected to the broadband wireless network. “We're one year ahead of schedule and 16 percent under budget,” Green said. “It was estimated it would cost about $50 million to build. The team brought it in at approximately $42 million, which is a huge savings. … The building of this was funded through federal stimulus and e-rate dollars, as well as a very generous donation from the Albertson Foundation, so no state moneys have been used to date.”

He stressed that the IEN is the “backbone” for providing online content to the schools or allowing them to share it, but isn't creating any curriculum itself. Joining Green for the presentation today are Brady Kraft, whose title is IEN technical director; and Garry Lough, whose title is IEN director of communications.

Green said, “One of the reasons that I was brought on was to bring the stakeholders together, create a … plan for the future of the IEN. … Once we complete this strategic plan, we'll operationalize it and effectuate it. … We've already begun work on it. We have a facilitator in place, and we hope to deliver the product March 31st.” The plan, Green said, will go to Luna, the State Board of Education, and the governor for approval.

Green is a former executive director of the Idaho School Boards Association who in 2008 was named executive director of iSucceed Virtual High School, and this year formed Praxis Management Group. A former teacher, from 1998 to 2002 he worked for the Idaho Division of Professional-Technical Education.

More details on lawsuit over IEN bid

Associated Press reporter Rebecca Boone has filed a full report on the lawsuit that Syringa Networks filed against the state of Idaho today, charging that a multimillion-dollar broadband contract for the Idaho Education Network was awarded to Qwest, even though that firm didn’t have the lowest bid. Among the suit’s allegations: That state Department of Administration chief Mike Gwartney warned Syringa that its other contracts with the state would be in danger if it complained about the arrangement, in which Syringa’s bidding partner, Education Networks of America, was awarded part of the job but allegedly told to keep Syringa out of it. Click below to read Boone’s full article.

State faces suit over Ed Network bid

Here’s a news item from the AP:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Syringa Networks is suing the state, saying the Idaho Department of Administration illegally awarded a lucrative Idaho Education Network contract to Qwest even though Qwest didn’t have the lowest bid. In the lawsuit filed in 4th District Court, Syringa’s attorneys say an impartial evaluation team selected by the Department of Administration found the company was the most technically proficient bidder and also the least expensive. But, Syringa contends, department director Mike Gwartney decided to award the contract to Qwest Communication Co. anyway, depriving Syringa of an estimated $60 million in work over the next two decades. The work is part of an ambitious project to link public schools, universities and businesses over a high-speed broadband network. Gwartney and other department officials could not be immediately reached by The Associated Press.

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Betsy Z. Russell covers Idaho news from The Spokesman-Review's bureau in Boise.

Named best state-based political blog in Idaho for 2013 by The Fix

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