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North Idaho school districts say collapse of network contract is actually benefit

River City Middle School sixth-grader Jocelyn Baray works in the school computer lab in Post Falls on Friday. (Kathy Plonka)
River City Middle School sixth-grader Jocelyn Baray works in the school computer lab in Post Falls on Friday. (Kathy Plonka)

Far from leaving them in the dark without service, the demise of Idaho’s multimillion-dollar statewide school broadband network has brought several North Idaho school districts better service at a lower cost.

“We’re getting more bandwidth now than we did before,” said Seth Deniston, technology director for the Coeur d’Alene School District. “We’re definitely paying less.”

“It’s a lot cheaper than I thought,” said Tom Taggart, business manager for the Lakeland School District.

In fact, at least five North Idaho school districts were able to quickly transfer their broadband service from the troubled Idaho Education Network to local Post Falls firm Ednetics at big savings. And they increased their broadband speed.

“It appears we were being overcharged for the services provided,” said Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert. “And obviously one of the silver linings in this whole issue is that not only will we reformulate what the IEN looks like, but we’ll have an opportunity for it to be more competitively bid.”

The statewide network, which linked every Idaho high school with broadband service and videoconferencing, collapsed last week after a judge declared the state’s $60 million contract with politically connected firms Education Networks of America and CenturyLink illegal. Lawmakers quickly approved a $3.6 million stopgap funding bill to cover costs for local school districts to find their own vendors for Internet service to replace the IEN.

Not every district has found big savings. Some opted to stay with ENA, the Tennessee-based firm that held the IEN contract. And some school districts are paying more. Yet many are paying less, particularly in North Idaho.

“Post Falls is saving over $8,000 per month and is receiving 10 times the bandwidth versus IEN costs,” said Shawn Swanby, president of Ednetics. “They’re getting a full gigabit of Internet connectivity for a third the price.”

The Mullan School District switched from IEN service that was costing $7,800 per month to an Ednetics plan that’s $1,000 a month, plus $2,000 in equipment. “This will save the state $6,800 per month for our district,” said Don Kotschevar, technology coordinator for the district. “We were able to expand our bandwidth from 18 megabits to 50 MB.”

“At first it was a little nerve-wracking – it kind of caught us a little off guard,” said John Pilmore, technology director for the Post Falls School District. “But in working with the people down there in the state Department of Education and then working closely with Ednetics, who we’ve worked with for years, we were able to put something together and it went off fine for us. We actually made the changeover last Friday.”

“There are a lot of companies that are stepping up to solve the problem,” Swanby said. “We feel an obligation to the schools in Idaho, because it’s not their fault – this mess is not their responsibility.”

An Idaho judge declared the IEN contract illegal in February. The state hadn’t paid the vendors since September because of the legal problems. Federal e-rate funds, which come from telephone taxes, were supposed to cover three-quarters of the cost of the IEN. But the funding was cut off in 2013 after an Idaho Supreme Court ruling raised questions about the contract award. The state anted up millions to replace the lost funds.

Former Idaho Department of Administration Director Mike Gwartney awarded the contract to ENA and Qwest – which was later bought out by CenturyLink – in 2009, though the highest-rated and lowest bid came from a consortium of ENA and Idaho-based Syringa Networks. Gwartney’s move cut Syringa out of the contract and Syringa sued.

Now, Syringa is one of the companies signing short-term contracts with school districts to provide broadband service through the end of the current school year. McCall-Donnelly School District Technology Director Matt Cavallin said he sought several bids, and Syringa had the best price. “Today we have a 100MB Internet connection up and running smoothly,” he said Thursday.

“That’s an extremely quick turnaround for something like this.”

The U.S. Justice Department is investigating the matter and the state Department of Administration reported last week that former employees have been questioned.

Swanby said Ednetics owns a lot of fiber optic lines in North Idaho, which made it quick and easy for the firm to connect area school districts.

The short-term contracts just run until the end of the current school year.

Swanby said, “I think that come July 1, you’ll find a lot of providers step up with pretty aggressive pricing in comparison to what the state has been paying, even in the rural areas.”


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