BOISE – Idaho state schools chief Tom Luna on Wednesday defiantly issued a 5- to 15-year contract to a Nashville, Tenn., company to run WiFi networks in Idaho high schools, dismissing criticism from lawmakers that they never authorized the multi-year contract.
The winning bidder, Education Networks of America, donated $6,000 to Luna’s campaign between the 2009 and 2012, and its top Idaho employee, Garry Lough, worked for Luna at the Idaho State Department of Education before joining the company last year. Neither of the other two finalist companies had ties to Luna.
ENA’s bid came in at $2.11 million per year for the first five years. With options to renew twice for another five years each and allowable price increases at each renewal, the contract could cost the state $33.3 million over 15 years.
Idaho high schools have the option of participating in the contract. Luna’s spokeswoman, Melissa McGrath, said the pricing won’t change based on the number of schools. “We have to be prepared to fund 340 high schools or 50 high schools,” she said.
If only 50 schools sign on, the state would be paying more than $42,000 per school for WiFi the first year. If 340 participated, the state would pay $6,211 per school.
In picking Nashville-based ENA, Luna passed over two other finalists that are home-grown Idaho companies: Ednetics, in Post Falls, and Tek-Hut Inc. in Twin Falls. Ednetics, which company president Shawn Swanby founded in 1997 when he was still a University of Idaho student, has more than 60 employees and develops and installs networks and other infrastructure in school districts and universities throughout the Northwest.
McGrath wouldn’t say if ENA had the lowest bid; she did say it received the highest score from an interview committee. The scoring was divided into three equal parts, for cost, technology, and company qualifications/interviews.
“As a state, it is our goal and our responsibility to ensure every child has equal access to the best educational opportunities, no matter where they live,” Luna said. “To accomplish this, we have to equip every public high school with the advanced technology and tools necessary to create these opportunities.”
Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said he’s asked the legislative budget staff to explore with the Idaho Attorney General whether Luna had legal authority to issue a multi-year contract, when the Legislature authorized only one year of funds for next year.
Luna characterized that as “standard practice,” noting that the contract, like most state contracts, will include an exit clause that cancels it if the state doesn’t appropriate sufficient funds. Because the contract also calls for ENA to own all the equipment it installs in the schools, if the contract is canceled, the company would remove he wireless networks it had installed.
Standard practice in Idaho’s Purchasing Division, however, calls for an agency to certify that it has the funding to cover the full cost of a contract over time, said administrator Bill Burns. “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,” he said.
Luna, like all state elected officials, wasn’t required to issue the contract through the state Purchasing Divison.
Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, said Wednesday that he wished the Purchasing Division had overseen the contracting process. “It would have been cleaner,” he said.
ENA already has an $8 million-a-year contract with the state to operate the Idaho Education Network, a state service that provides broadband connections to every Idaho high school. Lough, ENA’s top Idaho employee, directed the Idaho Education Network before he left state employment.
He didn’t immediately return a reporter’s call seeking comment.
The new WiFi contractor will work closely with the education network to take its broadband feed and translate it into campus-wide WiFi and ethernet connections. Cameron, of the Senate Finance Committee, and House Appropriations Chairwoman Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, questioned whether a statewide contract is even needed to provide WiFi to high schools, rather than just giving school districts the money to hire local providers.
McGrath said a statewide contract with a single vendor who owns all the equipment is more cost-effective. “When you begin to buy infrastructure, the cost is going to go up into the tens of millions,” she said.