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News >  Idaho

Idaho lawmakers, school officials move to replace troubled broadband network

BOISE – Idaho lawmakers are set to take action Tuesday morning on how to keep high school broadband service functioning in the state despite a morass of legal and financial problems. “In order to protect schools, I think we’re going to have to move tomorrow,” Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said Monday. The late addition to the agenda for the Legislature’s joint budget committee comes after a judge last week reaffirmed his decision that the state Department of Administration issued the $60 million contract for the Idaho Education Network illegally. The contract went to two politically connected vendors, Education Networks of America and Qwest Communications, now Century Link. Another vendor cut out of the deal, Syringa Networks, sued. Cameron said the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee’s co-chairs and vice-chairs plan to propose “a fix, a partial solution.” He said, “We’re doing our darnedest to protect public schools and kids.” The proposal won’t include the Otter Administration’s proposals for a one-year “bridge contract” exactly mirroring the current IEN, Cameron and Senate Finance Vice-Chair Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, said. Nor will it include the administration’s proposal to pass “legislative intent” language to allow the state to continue paying the current vendors under the voided IEN contract. “The Attorney General advised us to appropriate to a contract that’s now considered to be void would be considered a misuse of public funds,” Cameron said. “We felt like any emergency contract that would retain the current providers would cause additional problems.” He added, “Our legal counsel has strongly advised us, through the Attorney General’s office, that the best long-term solution for the IEN is to have a complete, clean break from the current system. They interpret that in every sense of the word.” Cameron also said the initial estimate from the state Department of Administration that it would take $1.6 million to keep broadband and video-conferencing services to Idaho high schools running from now to the end of the fiscal year June 30 was an under-estimate, and the full bill likely is closer to $2.4 million. Cameron and Keough said they don’t think there’s any chance that services for the remainder of this school year will qualify for federal “e-rate” matching funds that were supposed to pay for three-quarters of the service; the feds cut off the payments in 2013 out of concern over the illegally awarded contract for the IEN. That’s left Idaho paying four times as much as planned for the service. Close to 300 school trustees from around the state crowded into the Capitol’s Lincoln Auditorium late Monday afternoon for an update on the project. “As you know, we’ve had a mess,” Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, told them. “The contracts were not entered into appropriately.” He said, “There is a very good chance that your IEN connection, your broadband, your internet is not going to functional after the end of this month.” School districts are being asked to immediately apply for e-rate eligibility for next year, and to immediately begin negotiating for their own broadband services, in Cameron’s words, “Starting March 1 or whenever the service ends up going dark.” Will Goodman, technology chief for the state Department of Education, said the department will assist any school district that needs help with the process.
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