BOISE – A service audit of the Idaho Education Network is raising troubling questions about the pricey statewide broadband and videoconferencing network that links Idaho’s high schools.
Looking specifically at the videoconferencing portion of the network, the report from the state’s legislative audits division found that $3.35 million was spent on the now state-owned equipment, but roughly 6 percent of it couldn’t be located, and 53 percent of it isn’t being used. When school districts are using the videoconferencing equipment, they’re mostly not using it for classes specifically provided over the IEN, and the number of those classes has been declining over recent years. Only 2 percent of students served by the IEN are taking classes that are broadcast specifically on the network.
The state is wrestling with how to handle the network after a judge declared the state’s $60 million contract for the service illegal in November, a decision Gov. Butch Otter’s administration is contesting. Still, initial steps to rebid the contract have already begun.
The service audit found that most school districts are satisfied with the service, even though they’re not making much use of the videoconferencing; some are using it for meetings or other uses. Growing numbers of students are taking online classes through the state-operated Idaho Digital Learning Academy, and school districts are utilizing the broadband Internet service that comes with the IEN for those, the report found.
Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said that as the state considers rebidding the voided contract for the IEN, the state can re-evaluate the system and fix problems.
“It should give us pause,” said Cameron, co-chairman of the Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. “We have this opportunity, and I’m hopeful the Legislature and the executive branch won’t squander this opportunity.”
Former Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, said the equipment is “absolutely vital” in some districts.
He noted that a group of four districts in the Arco area and another group of five in eastern Idaho are using the IEN to share classes.
“Even Clark Fork has videoconferencing from Meridian for a class,” said Goedde, who was hired by Otter to work on the IEN issue on a $4,000-a-month contract for this year’s legislative session.
Thursday afternoon, Goedde and the state Department of Administration issued a response to the service audit, noting that six of the eight missing pieces of equipment now have been located.
Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, JFAC vice chair, said broadband wouldn’t have made it to some of the communities she represents, particularly Priest River and Bonners Ferry, without the IEN.
“Now we have broadband capacity at least into one point in our communities,” she said.
That’s allowing students to take distance-learning classes through the Idaho Digital Learning Academy and North Idaho College, she said. Keough said she thinks the network must be maintained, but added, “I think we ought to be looking at a different model.”
Cameron said the audit showed that while some districts are using the IEN to broadcast advanced high school courses, others are offering things like music appreciation and rock ’n’ roll history.
“I love rock and roll, but I’m not sure that’s the purpose for which we intended, that we’re spending millions and millions of dollars on,” he said.
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