Idaho alters school WiFi deal under pressure from lawmakers
BOISE – Under pressure from legislators, the state Education Department and the company it selected to provide WiFi to high schools statewide have agreed that payment should be made only for services provided.
The change marks a major shift in a controversial contract with Education Networks of America that would have paid the Nashville-based company a flat fee regardless of how many schools it served. Savings could drop the value of the total contract from $2.11 million to $1.89 million for the first year and key lawmakers say other potential changes could be in the works.
“To me, it made no sense being charged the same whether one school signed up or every school signed up,” said Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene. But, he said, “The concessions didn’t necessarily satisfy all my concerns. Whether the concessions they’ve made will be palatable enough for the Legislature to appropriate funds again is the real issue.”
State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna signed the five- to 15-year contract with Nashville, Tenn.-based ENA in July, based on a one-time appropriation from the Legislature of $2.25 million for the upcoming school year. But the contract runs for five years, with options to renew for up to 15 years.
It includes a clause that if lawmakers don’t budget money in future years, the contract will end. But it also says the contractor – ENA – owns all the equipment it installs, including miles of cabling to be installed in every Idaho high school to provide wireless networks, and if the contract ends, it must remove everything it’s installed.
Goedde said the cabling issue is another one that concerns him. “I have no problem with them pulling out devices,” he said. “Devices age quickly, and what they install today, in two years will probably be outdated. But I do have an issue with the cable.”
An insurance agent, Goedde said, “Any time anybody installs something in a building, it becomes a part of the building.”
ENA, in an Aug. 6 letter to the SDE chief information officer Joyce Popp, offered a partial concession on the cabling: If the contract ends after the first five-year term, it’ll give up its ownership rights to the cabling, which will run to WiFi access points in every high school classroom and other areas in the schools.
“If, however, our contract is terminated for any reason prior to the initial five years, we will remove our equipment and restrict the right to use the cabling we have installed as well as reserve the right to remove or otherwise secure our exclusive access to the cabling investment that we have not fully financially recovered,” ENA Senior Vice President Bob Collie wrote.
While embracing the concession on the flat-fee approach, the department didn’t fully accept the cabling offer. In her Aug. 22 response letter, Popp wrote, “The SDE is appreciative of ENA’s willingness to facilitate the future use of the cabling installed by ENA beyond the conclusion of the contract. However, whether the SDE waives ENA’s obligation under the contract to de-install this and other hardware at the conclusion of the contract is a decision the SDE will need to consider on a case-by-case basis, in consultation with individual school districts … to ensure we are making the most prudent decision for Idaho students and Idaho taxpayers.”
The controversial long-term contract, which took state lawmakers by surprise, was awarded to ENA though four other bidders offered lower prices. The three finalists included ENA and two Idaho-based companies, Tek-Hut Inc. of Twin Falls, and Ednetics of Post Falls.
The original request for proposals was based on participation by all Idaho high schools or junior highs serving students in grades 9-12, plus staff. That was estimated at 137,240 users. But the state revised the number downward to 100,555 users as of the contract award.
ENA’s bid set a price of $21 per user, or $2.11 million. However, not all school districts in Idaho decided to participate in the contract; Coeur d’Alene schools, for example, contracted with Ednetics for their WiFi service instead, something they’d already planned to fund through a voter-approved bond issue.
The SDE now estimates that 203 schools with 89,863 users will participate in the statewide WiFi contract this year. At $21 per user, that’d cost $1.89 million.
Luci Willits, chief of staff to Luna, said ENA’s concessions aren’t considered amendments to the contract; they’ve simply agreed to bill only for wireless services they’ve installed. “As the SDE is not considering any amendments to the contract, there is no reason for re-bidding the project or making any changes to the RFP or resulting contract,” Willits said.
ENA has already started work; one school district, Sugar-Salem in eastern Idaho, already has its wireless networks installed.
House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-0akley, said the SDE has been working on addressing lawmakers’ concerns about the contract, including the signing of a long-term contract based on a one-year budget appropriation bill. “I’ve read and reread the bill, and I think that it could have been drafted better,” he said. “I don’t think that we will ever make that mistake again. In other words, we’ll never have broad language again.”
Bedke said, “The Legislature collectively won’t be bound by something they’re not going to be comfortable with. But I’m encouraging all the parties to sit down and to work out the issues so that we can go forward on what in my opinion is a given, and that is that we need WiFi connectivity in high school classrooms.”
He added, “If there are flaws in the process, we’ll correct those – and maybe as quickly and as early as the first of next session.”