BOISE – Idaho school districts that opted to not join a controversial statewide contract for high school Wi-Fi services should qualify for state funding for their own wireless networks, state lawmakers decided Friday.
On a 15-5 vote, the Legislature’s joint budget committee agreed to start reimbursing districts that set up their own networks – like Coeur d’Alene – and also to offer that option to those who want to withdraw from the statewide system. Those districts, if they met certain standards, would get $21 per student, the same rate the state pays 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.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna signed the five- to 15-year contract with Education Networks of America 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 surprised by Luna’s move.
The contract stipulates that if lawmakers don’t budget for it in future years, the contract will end.
Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, advocated not appropriating the money this year. But Cameron said the attorney general’s office advises that cutting off the contract now 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 Wi-Fi through the state contract, or nothing.
Luna awarded the contract to Nashville, Tenn.-based Education Networks of America, even though two companies based in Idaho, plus two other companies, offered lower bids.
Luna on Friday said the decision showed the state would continue to support wireless networks for every high school, which he said was his goal all along.