March 7, 2014 in Idaho

Idaho to reimburse schools that skipped WiFi contract

By The Spokesman-Review
 

BOISE – Idaho school districts – like Coeur d’Alene – that opted not to join a controversial statewide contract for high school WiFi services should qualify for state funding for their own WiFi networks, state lawmakers decided Friday.

On a 15-5 vote, the Legislature’s joint budget committee agreed not only to start reimbursing districts that went out on their own, but also to offer that option to those now in the contract who want to withdraw; those districts, if they met certain standards, would get $21 per student, the same price the state is paying Education Networks of America.

Meanwhile, the state will conduct a “service audit” to see what services are being provided where, what they cost, and how satisfied districts are with them.

“Next year we would be able to make a decision as to how to proceed – whether to continue with the contract, or whether to do something completely different,” said Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert. “We’ll have a better defensible position.”

State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna signed the five- to 15-year contract with ENA in July, based on a one-time appropriation from the Legislature of $2.25 million for the current school year. But the contract runs for five years, with options to renew for up to 15 years. Lawmakers were taken by surprise.

The contract includes a clause that if lawmakers don’t budget money in future years, the contract will end. But Cameron said the Attorney General’s office advises that cutting off the contract now through non-appropriation – as advocated by Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene – would be risky.

“Unfortunately, you’d probably spend as much in legal costs defending that decision, based on the lack of information we have, as you would in paying for the contract, so that didn’t seem to be a wise choice,” Cameron said. “Our legal counsel impressed upon us that what we really needed to do was make a good-faith effort, gather information, and then make appropriate decisions down the road.”

Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, argued against letting any school districts out of the contract. “They voluntarily opted in, they said they were willing to work with the state,” he said. “They all said, ‘This is what we want.’ I believe that in good faith the state put forth the contract, the districts opted in, and it is important to keep that contract.”

But Cameron said many school districts felt they had no choice – they could either get free WiFi through the state contract, or nothing.

Luna awarded the contract to ENA, which is based in Nashville, Tenn., though four other firms, including two based in Idaho, offered lower bids.

Luna on Friday called the decision “good news,” saying it showed the state would continue to support wireless networks for every Idaho high school, which he said was his goal all along.

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