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Idaho spent $61 million on failed school management system

BOISE – Idaho wasted $61 million on a statewide instructional management system for schools that former state schools Superintendent Tom Luna continued to push despite warnings it wouldn’t work, according to a new state performance evaluation.

Tim Corder, special assistant to new state schools Superintendent Sherri Ybarra, told lawmakers Tuesday the state performance evaluation report is accurate.

“We really are a changed administration,” Corder told the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee. “It was not us. It was the previous administration. … Superintendent Ybarra did not create that problem, but Superintendent Ybarra is going to be about fixing that problem.”

The report from the Legislature’s Office of Performance Evaluations showed that Idaho spent $61 million trying to implement Schoolnet statewide, including a $21 million grant from the J.A. & Kathryn Albertson Foundation and more than $40 million in state tax funds.

Schoolnet tracks students’ grades, attendance, test scores and curriculum and is available to teachers, parents and schools to track student learning. Many districts never used the system, and only a small number still use it.

The state initially committed $77 million toward the project, including the grant, as part of Luna’s Students Come First school reform initiative. Idaho voters rejected the Students Come First laws in a 2012 referendum. In addition to the statewide instructional management system, the push called for a laptop computer for every Idaho high school student, a new focus on online learning, eliminating teacher contract protections and shifting resources to cover the new expenditures without increasing school funding.

“Poor management, poor decisions and poor system functionality compounded themselves and prevented the goals for a statewide instructional management system from being realized,” Rakesh Mohan, director of the Legislature’s Office of Performance Evaluations, told lawmakers.

Rep. Gayle Batt, R-Wilder, called it “sickening results, if you ask me.” “You see that there’s $61 million, you think, wow, that would have gone a long way for roads,” Batt said.

House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, called the report “disheartening.”

“It seems to be every year we find somebody has a great idea and doesn’t check it out,” Rusche said. “And then, of course, we claim poverty on why we can’t support the teachers or the other services.”

Rusche proposed legislation this year to set up a new Office of Inspector General for Idaho, but the bill hasn’t gotten a hearing.

“We should demand more accountability,” Rusche said. “I haven’t seen that from the executive, thus far, so maybe we should be doing that.”

Corder said one of Ybarra’s top priorities, already approved by legislative budget writers, is adding a person to oversee contracts at the state Department of Education; he said the new administration was surprised to find no one had that role, though the department oversees some 1,500 contracts.

He noted how the department leapt into action to replace the defunct Idaho Education Network statewide contract by helping individual districts select and contract with their own broadband vendors.

“We want to leave you with the message that you can trust the state Department of Education,” Corder said. “You can trust this administration – we can count, we can, and we can calculate, and we can spell. And we can do all of the other things that you require us to do.”

Luna signed two contracts totaling $10.9 million in 2010 and 2011 with NCS Pearson Inc. for Schoolnet, plus an array of other smaller contracts as part of the project. Millions more was spent directly, including on professional development and technology. Pearson was one of three vendors named as finalists for the contract after a request for information issued in January of 2010.

“The problems with the project began long before a system vendor was selected, were rooted in decisions made by the department, and importantly, were for the most part avoidable,” the report found.

Pete Koehler, Ybarra’s chief deputy superintendent and former Nampa School District superintendent, said Schoolnet was never intended to be a statewide system – it was designed to function at the school district level. The report found that the statewide Schoolnet system was “overly ambitious given the capabilities of the product it selected to use.”


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