Gov. Butch Otter tepid on school Wi-Fi deal
BOISE – Idaho Gov. Butch Otter weighed in Monday on a controversial multiyear, multimillion-dollar contract for Wi-Fi networks in Idaho high schools, saying, “It’s not necessarily how I would have done it.”
Otter stopped short of saying whether he’ll support continued funding next year when the $2.25 million one-time appropriation will automatically expire.
Idaho schools chief Tom Luna signed the contract last week with Education Networks of America, a politically connected company that had supported his campaign. The contract calls for the state to pay $2.11 million a year for five years, with options to renew for up to 15 years. If the contract runs the full 15 years, it will cost the state $33.3 million.
“I have been and will continue to be supportive of technology in the classroom,” Otter said. However, he said, “I understand and I agree with the concerns people have expressed over the contract, particularly the character of the money being utilized: one-time funds relative to the ongoing obligation.”
Luna, who couldn’t be reached for comment Monday, said earlier that he believed the long-term contract was the most cost-effective way to install Wi-Fi networks in every Idaho high school, and said if lawmakers don’t fund it in future years, the contract will be automatically canceled. However, the contract also states that the vendor owns all equipment it installs, and if the deal is canceled, the vendor must remove the networks it had installed in Idaho high schools.
Earlier this year, Otter touted that his budget recommendations contained “no one-time revenue used for ongoing financial obligations.” He made that statement to a joint session of the Legislature, calling the budget “structurally sound.”
Both Otter and Luna included in their budget proposals $33.9 million in the public school budget to fund whatever recommendations might come forth from a 31-member education stakeholders’ task force. Otter appointed the group to look into possible reforms in the wake of the voter-rejected Students Come First school reform laws, which rolled back teachers’ collective bargaining rights, imposed a new merit-pay bonus plan, and required a laptop computer for every high school student and a new focus on online learning.
But the task force hasn’t made any recommendations and isn’t scheduled to until late summer at the earliest. Its proposals will go to Otter in the fall for consideration for next year’s budget.
Idaho’s state budget typically designates only a limited amount of funding as “one-time,” generally for items like equipment replacements. The majority of the budget is ongoing funding, recognizing the cost to continue the program or service in the future.
Legislative Budget Director Cathy Holland-Smith, who has worked in the legislative budget office since 1994, said she’s unaware of any other instance in which an agency signed a multiyear contract based on a one-time appropriation.
Under the Students Come First laws, a huge contract issued to Hewlett-Packard to lease laptops for every Idaho high school student also called for Education Networks of America to install Wi-Fi networks in every Idaho high school; that contract was canceled after the repeal of the laws.