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Tuesday, August 11, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Idaho officials scramble to keep broadband service to schools after court voids contract

BOISE - State officials and legislative leaders are scrambling to find a way to keep the statewide broadband network that serves Idaho high schools running, after a judge tossed out the five-year-old $60 million contract for the service on Monday.

The head of Syringa Networks, the company that sued and won, is calling for a re-bid of the contract, and House Speaker Scott Bedke says that’s likely where the state is headed. But in the meantime, he said emergency or bridge efforts are called for so school kids taking distance courses on the network don’t get interrupted mid-term.

“This is about the kids’ education,” Bedke said Wednesday. “The judge has pointed out some problems, obviously. But we’re in the middle of a school year.”

Officials from the state Department of Administration, the Legislature, the governor’s office and more were meeting about the issue on Wednesday. “We’re working on a path to ensure that this distance learning continues around the state,” Bedke said.

Jon Hanian, spokesman for Gov. Butch Otter, said, “They’re still evaluating the decision and then determining the path forward.”

The network didn’t go down Wednesday, Department of Administration spokeswoman Jennifer Pike confirmed, even though a 4th District judge ruled that the contract between the state and Education Networks of America and Qwest, now known as CenturyLink, to provide the service was issued illegally. Judge Patrick Owen declared the contract void.

Then-Administration Director Mike Gwartney in 2009 awarded the contract to two groups of bidders, ENA and its partner Syringa Networks, and Qwest and its partner Verizon, then amended the contract to cut Syringa out of the deal, so all the work it would have done would be done by Qwest. The ENA/Syringa bid was the highest-rated. Syringa sued.

Greg Lowe, CEO of Syringa, said in a statement Wednesday, “While Syringa Networks is supportive of the IEN, it pursued this action to prevent vendors such as ENA and CenturyLink from improperly benefiting from an unfair procurement process at the expense of Idaho’s taxpayers. We are pleased that the District Court agreed with our position by voiding the IEN contracts.”

He added, “With the District Court’s recent opinion, Syringa Networks remains hopeful that the Department of Administration will recognize that this litigation, funded by taxpayer dollars, was a wasteful attempt to ‘fix what cannot be fixed,’ and move forward to rebidding the IEN procurement.”

Bedke said, “It would look like a re-bidding of the system in its entirety is probably in our future.” But he said that will take time. “This is about keeping the service up and going right now. I think there’s ways to do that, but it’s going to take some cooperation from the parties,” he said.

Plus, private attorney Merlyn Clark, who represented the state in the lawsuit, told lawmakers in March that if the case didn’t work out favorably for the state, the state could end up barred from receiving federal “e-rate” funds that were supposed to cover three-quarters of the cost of the broadband network. Those funds were cut off in 2013 amid concerns over the contract award. If that were to happen, school districts still could remain eligible for the federal matching funds if they contracted on their own, rather than participated in a state-run contract, though it’s unclear at this point how the state would approach that.

Meanwhile, state campaign finance records show that ENA isn’t the only big campaign contributor involved in the deal. Though the firm has donated $18,250 to Gov. Butch Otter’s campaigns since 2006, including $5,000 in September, Qwest, the phone company now known as CenturyLink, gave even more: $35,000 since 2006. The firm made its donations through its political action committee, now known as CenturyLink Idaho PAC and formerly Qwest Idaho PAC.

Syringa Networks, the company that won the lawsuit over the contract, gave $2,000 to Otter’s campaign in 2008. But in 2010, it donated $5,000 to the campaign of Keith Allred, Otter’s Democratic opponent that year. And in April of this year, it donated $5,000 to the campaign of Sen. Russ Fulcher, who ran against Otter in the GOP primary.

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