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Monday, March 30, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Idaho

Idaho sees more school Internet savings

BOISE – The savings are continuing to mount after the demise of the Idaho Education Network.

The service, aimed at providing broadband Internet, videoconferencing and other services to every high school in the state, shut down in February when a judge ruled the $60 million contract was illegal. State lawmakers set aside $3.64 million for school districts to negotiate their own broadband service contracts with the vendors of their choice, after pulling back $5 million in funding that was to go to the defunct network.

The final year-end numbers show the districts spent just $2.2 million of that amount; the other $1.37 million will revert to the state general fund.

“The transition, we’re hearing, went well,” legislative budget analyst Robyn Lockett told the Legislature’s Broadband Access Study Committee on Tuesday.

“The actual expenditures came in much lower than the appropriation itself, and again much lower than the IEN structure, which realized a savings to the general fund.”

Lockett spoke at the study committee’s first hearing as lawmakers try to determine what to do next.

Representatives of four school districts, including Coeur d’Alene, told lawmakers they’re better off now than they were with the IEN, with lower-cost, higher-quality Internet service. But one small district from eastern Idaho said it appreciated the assistance of a statewide program.

The savings still are expected to grow, as school districts receive reimbursements from the federal “e-rate” program, which is funded by a fee on telephone lines.

The e-rate program was supposed to cover three-quarters of the cost of the network, but the legal problems with the contract award prompted the federal government to stop payments to Idaho, costing the state millions. Court appeals are continuing.

Will Goodman, president of the Idaho Education Technology Association, told the lawmakers his group favors continuing the current arrangement, in which school districts contract for their own service and are reimbursed by the state, for fiscal year 2017, the year lawmakers will budget for when they convene their next legislative session in January.

Then, for fiscal year 2018 and beyond, the group is recommending a statewide service program to coordinate and provide optional help to districts with broadband issues, including funding, bidding and e-rate compliance.

“We are not encouraging a return to a managed statewide network,” he told the lawmakers.

The panel also heard from state Department of Administration officials who defended the now-void contract.

Rep. Luke Malek, R-Coeur d’Alene, co-chairman of the legislative panel, said, “I don’t want this to be a courtroom. I want to move forward here. I don’t want to litigate what’s been done.”

Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, said if the state opts for a new statewide broadband network contract, it will need to dissect everything that went wrong with the last one and how to make sure it doesn’t recur.

The joint legislative committee will meet again in August.

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