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Opinion >  Column

Eye on Boise: Idaho school Wi-Fi contract questioned by lawmakers

BOISE – A rare clash between two branches of Idaho’s government has been roiling Boise for the past week, after state schools Superintendent Tom Luna signed a five- to 15-year Wi-Fi contract for Idaho high schools based on legislative approval of a one-time appropriation of $2.25 million for next year.

The two co-chairmen of the Legislature’s key Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee are questioning why a statewide contract would even be needed to install wireless networks at Idaho high schools, rather than just giving the money to local school districts and letting them hire local providers to put in their wireless systems, which the districts then would own.

“It puts the state in the position of competing with local service providers,” said Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert. “Maybe that’s just my philosophical difference, but I’m not sure that’s the role the state should play. What’s good for Castleford may not be what’s best for Blaine school district, or vice versa.”

House Appropriations Chairwoman Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, said, “I am just really surprised, and it troubles me, because that $2.25 million is not enough money to make this type of an assumption on. It’s not a fortune.”

The contract with Education Networks of America, a politically connected Tennessee-based firm that has supported Luna’s campaigns and also donated generously to Idaho lawmakers and Gov. Butch Otter, is for $2.11 million a year for five years, with options to renew for an additional five years with a price increase of up to 5 percent, and then for five more years with another 5 percent hike. Total cost to the state during 15 years would be $33.3 million.

Cameron said there were several messages from Idaho voters’ rejection of the Students Come First school reform laws last November, which included a giant statewide contract to provide laptop computers to every Idaho high school student. “I think one of them was that they didn’t want this top-down, all-inclusive approach from the state department, who appears to know best or think they know best,” he said. “The Legislature agreed this session that it should be locally driven decisions on technology, who the vendors are, etc.”

‘Map what we have’

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, says Idaho needs to be taking stock of what school technology it already has to sensibly plan for additions. Instead, the state has signed a long-term contract for Wi-Fi at high schools statewide while saying it doesn’t know how many already have installed wireless on their own.

“A majority of legislators agree that we need our public K-12 schools and all of our schools to keep up with technology,” said Keough, vice-chair of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. “I think that we need to be prudent in properly planning that build-out, however.

“I have advocated in the past two years that we need to be mapping what it is we have and making sure that we have a systematic plan for our build-out. … I thought we were headed down that path, but it doesn’t sound as though we’re there yet.”

She added, “I’m concerned about going ahead with something that isn’t authorized by the Legislature budgetwise. There’s no money past next year. And it might be disruptive if we do not fund it, and the equipment may get pulled out, and that’s disruptive to the district.”

Lofty aims

The state’s request for proposals for the Wi-Fi contract contains some lofty aspirations for its results.

Among them:  “The Project will support educating more students at a higher level by providing electronic network connectivity throughout the entire school building rather than only in a wired classroom. No matter where a child lives in Idaho, they will have access to the best educational opportunities, including the highest quality instruction and highly effective teachers. Every student will learn in a 21st Century classroom not limited by walls, bell schedules, school calendars, or geography. When they graduate from high school, they will be prepared to go on to post-secondary education or the workforce, without the need for remediation.”

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