July 25, 2013 in Opinion

Editorial: Idaho’s Luna owes explanation for rushed Wi-Fi contract

 

“Students Come First” was the name of Idaho state schools chief Tom Luna’s controversial school reforms, which included a dramatic increase in online learning. But the lesson he has failed to learn is that communication comes first in pushing significant change.

First, teachers complained they weren’t sufficiently consulted when Luna introduced his reforms two years ago. Nonetheless, lawmakers adopted them, but voters repealed them. Then, last session, lawmakers passed modified versions and made it more difficult to launch voter initiatives.

Now, Luna has befuddled his legislative allies by awarding a 15-year contract worth up to $35.5 million to set up Wi-Fi networks in Idaho schools. Key lawmakers didn’t know about this until contacted on Tuesday by Spokesman-Review reporter Betsy Z. Russell. Some of them expressed anger because they didn’t appropriate money for this purpose.

“My word – how can they,” said an incredulous Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, who chairs the House Appropriation Committee. Idaho Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, had a similar reaction, saying, “This shows in my opinion a little bit of a lack of judgment.”

Those comments were published Wednesday, but Luna pressed forward anyway, awarding the contract to Education Networks of America, a Tennessee-based company. What was the rush? The two other finalists were from Idaho. ENA is the contractor that worked on broadband access for the state’s high schools.

Russell reported on her Eye on Boise blog that she could find no connection between Luna and the two bidding companies from Idaho, but that ENA donated $6,000 to Luna’s campaign between 2009 and 2012, and “its top Idaho employee, Garry Lough, worked for Luna at the Idaho State Department of Education before joining ENA in 2012.” Lough has also contributed to Luna’s campaigns.

In a news release, state Department of Education spokeswoman Melissa McGrath said the multiyear contract approach is “standard practice.” Not so, said Bill Burns, administrator of the state Purchasing Division in the Department of Administration. The Legislature only authorized $2.25 million for Wi-Fi for one year. Burns said his division doesn’t pursue multiyear contracts until it can certify that money will be available.

Luna could have nailed down that detail. His sister, Teresa, was named the head of the Department of Administration in 2011.

McGrath contends the authorization for a long-term contract is derived from Senate Bill 1200, which comes as news to the two committee chairs in charge of appropriations. Cameron called that claim “a stretch and perhaps borderline on a lack of honesty.”

McGrath also said that if money isn’t appropriated for the next fiscal year the state could cancel the contract. But it could be out $2.25 million with little to show for it.

Luna’s bull-headed approach is arrogant and invites suspicion. He needs to put this deal on hold and provide a full explanation. Failing that, Gov. Butch Otter must step in.

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