BOISE - Idaho wasted $61 million on a failed statewide instructional management system for schools, according to a new state performance evaluation, as former state schools Superintendent Tom Luna pushed it forward despite warnings it wouldn’t work.
Tim Corder, special assistant to new state schools Superintendent Sherri Ybarra, told lawmakers Tuesday the report is accurate. “We really are a changed administration,” Corder told the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee. “It was not us. It was the previous administration. … Superintendent Ybarra did not create that problem, but Superintendent Ybarra is going to be about fixing that problem.”
The report from the Legislature’s Office of Performance Evaluations showed that Idaho has spent $61 million on trying to implement Schoolnet statewide, including a $21 million grant from the J.A. & Kathryn Albertson Foundation and more than $40 million in state tax funds.
The state initially committed $77 million toward the project, including the grant, as part of Luna’s “Students Come First” school reform initiative. Idaho voters rejected the Students Come First laws in a 2012 referendum. In addition to the statewide instructional management system, the push called for a laptop computer for every Idaho high school student, a new focus on online learning, eliminating teacher contract protections and shifting resources to cover the new expenditures without increasing school funding.
“Poor management, poor decisions, and poor system functionality compounded themselves and prevented the goals for a statewide instructional management system from being realized,” Rakesh Mohan, director of the Legislature’s Office of Performance Evaluations, told lawmakers.
Rep. Gayle Batt, R-Wilder, called it “sickening results, if you ask me.” She said, “I think we’ve been waiting to hear this report. … You see that there’s $61 million, you think, wow, that would have gone a long way for roads.”
House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, agreed. “This is just , it’s more than disheartening,” he said, “and I think even though the department may have changed leadership, that we need to make sure that things are investigated a little further and people tell us how this has been made so that it doesn’t happen again. It seems to be every year we find somebody has a great idea, and doesn’t check it out, doesn’t build a good RFP, doesn’t build a good plan, doesn’t manage the plan, and we end up spending tens of millions of dollars of citizens’ money, and then of course we claim poverty on why we can’t support the teachers or the other services.”
Rusche said, “I think we should demand more accountability. I haven’t seen that from the executive, thus far, so maybe we should be doing that.”
Rusche proposed legislation this year to set up a new Office of Inspector General for Idaho, but the bill hasn’t gotten a hearing.
Corder said one of Ybarra’s top priorities, already approved by legislative budget writers, is adding a person to oversee contracts at the state Department of Education; he said the new administration was surprised to find no one had that role, though the department oversees some 1,500 contracts.
He noted how the department leapt into action to replace the defunct Idaho Education Network statewide contract by helping individual districts select and contract with their own broadband vendors. “We will continue to resolve the problems that are handed to us with that kind of expertise,” he said.
“We want to leave you with the message that you can trust the state Department of Education,” Corder said, “you can trust this administration – we can count, we can, and we can calculate, and we can spell. And we can do all of the other things that you require us to do.”
Luna signed two contracts totaling $10.9 million in 2010 and 2011 with NCS Pearson Inc. for Schoolnet, plus an array of other smaller contracts as part of the project. Millions more was spent directly, on everything from professional development to technology. Pearson was one of three vendors named as finalists for the contract after a request for information issued in January of 2010.
“The problems with the project began long before a system vendor was selected, were rooted in decisions made by the department, and importantly, were for the most part avoidable,” the report found.
Pete Koehler, Ybarra’s chief deputy superintendent and former Nampa School District superintendent, said Schoolnet, the instructional management system that former Superintendent Luna tried to implement statewide, was never intended to be a statewide system – it was designed to function at the school district level.
“Schoolnet went south because they tried to make it a statewide system for a system that was designed for a school district,” Koehler said. “That was the problem they ran into. … but instead of coming to grips … they pushed forward.” Koehler said there’s no reason for an instructional management system to be a statewide operation. “We want instructional management systems at each school district.”
The report found that the statewide Schoolnet system was “overly ambitious given the capabilities of the product it selected to use.”
The project was compared to “trying to build a plane while flying it,” the report said.
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