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Thursday, February 27, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Idaho

Idaho school Wi-Fi plan surprises legislators

BOISE – Idaho state schools chief Tom Luna is about to sign a 15-year, multimillion-dollar contract for a private company to set up Wi-Fi networks in every high school in the state, even though the Legislature never approved the move.

Luna is scheduled to award the contract today. The finalists include Education Networks of America, a company that was awarded a contract, later canceled, under the voter-rejected Students Come First laws last year to do the same thing.

“It was part of a Senate bill that we should do a statewide contract,” said Melissa McGrath, Luna’s spokeswoman. But the bill she cited was Senate Bill 1200, the public school budget. It allocated $2.25 million to set up wireless infrastructure in Idaho high schools next year and said nothing about a long-term contract.

The request for proposals doesn’t include amounts, but if the contract stayed at $2.25 million a year, it would cost the state $11.25 million over five years and $33.75 million over the full 15 years.

“We did not agree and probably would not have agreed to a multiyear contract during last session, particularly given the financial straits that we believed we were under,” said Idaho Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert. “This shows in my opinion a little bit of a lack of judgment.”

He called the suggestion that SB 1200 authorized the contract “certainly a stretch, and perhaps borderline on a lack of honesty, because there was no provision in SB 1200 that addressed it.”

Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, the House Appropriations chairwoman, said, “My word – how can they? That doesn’t sound like the budget I set every year, which dies, positively dies out of money on the 30th of June.”

The state Department of Education’s request for proposals also specifies that the successful vendor will own all the equipment it installs in roughly 340 Idaho high schools. And if the contract is canceled for any reason – including because the Legislature doesn’t ante up in future years – the winning bidder would be required to remove the wireless networks from schools.

If the vendor owns the equipment, said Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, what did the state spend $2.25 million a year for?

Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, shared Goedde’s concern. The contract calls for an initial term of five years, with options to renew up to 15 years. “It sounds to me like we could get into it five years and have many millions of dollars invested, but you’re still going to forfeit it if you don’t go the full length of the contract,” he said. “That just doesn’t seem like a prudent way to do it.”

Hill, who like Cameron and Bell learned of the contract when a Spokesman-Review reporter called on Tuesday, said, “It needs to come to light.”

Goedde said Luna aide Jason Hancock had mentioned in passing that there would be a contract associated with the $2.25 million, but he didn’t know about the long term or the vendor ownership of the equipment.

Cameron said the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, when it approved the $2.25 million in the public school budget for next year, viewed it as “seed money” that would help some school districts to get wireless service.

McGrath, Luna’s spokeswoman, said school districts will have the option of participating in the statewide contract: They won’t have to if they already have their own wireless set up. “We do not have a count of schools that already have high-speed wireless,” she said.

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, Senate Finance vice chair, said, “That seems like that ought to be homework we need to be doing ahead of awarding a contract like this.”

Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, said, “It’s just all quite astonishing. … It just feels like an attempt to force our hand on something that we didn’t plan for and didn’t approve.” She added, “We gave him (Luna) a toe in the door and he’s wriggled his whole body in.” Nine companies bid on the contract, and now there are three finalists. McGrath said, “There’s always a clause in any contract that we have where it’s renewed every year based on the money we receive from the Legislature. So if the Legislature doesn’t approve money for fiscal year ’15, we could cancel the contract.”

She declined to answer questions about why the request for proposals requires the vendor to maintain ownership of all the equipment it installs in the schools.

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