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Idaho Wireless Contract Stirs Controversy

Nearly 80 percent of Idaho school districts and charter schools have opted to participate in a statewide program to bring wireless Internet to every school that serves students in grades 9-12, according to the state department of education.

The Wi-Fi will be installed and managed by Education Networks of America, a Nashville-based company that was recently awarded a controversial, five-year $10.5 million contract by state schools superintendent Tom Luna. Participation in the program is optional, and 249 of the 333 eligible schools have opted in for the first year. Regardless of how many schools opt in, the deal will cost the state $2.1 million annually.

"We chose to do a flat fee because we don't know how many schools will show up each year," said Melissa McGrath, a spokesperson for Luna, in an interview. The contract is for a managed service, meaning that the company will be responsible for maintaining the networks, but will also own all hardware and equipment, which they will take with them if and when the contract is terminated.

The department of education says that arrangement was necessary because purchasing the equipment would be too costly otherwise.

The districts participating include the state's two largest systems by enrollment, the Boise city independent school district and the Meridian joint school district. Though both districts already have some level of wireless connectivity, they chose to join the state program to enhance their existing networks and allow more students to use the Internet at the same time.

"Our current high school wireless is not robust enough for one-to-one," student-to-device efforts, said Jerry Reininger, director of information systems. in Meridian. "This will allow us to have Wi-Fi capabilities throughout the entire building and all students will be able to get online." Reininger was also a member of a committee organized by the department of education which was responsible for choosing Education Networks of America's proposal from several applications.

David Roberts, the administrator of technology at Boise ISD, said that increased Wi-Fi connectivity will allow the district to pursue a wider array of technology initiatives.

"I want to be able to open more options for teachers to fit to their specific classrooms," he said. "This puts us in a position to be creative and fit what we want to do in individual buildings and classrooms with future opportunities."

Idaho's third largest district, the Pocatello school system, decided not to take part in the state Wi-Fi program. As was the case in Meridian and Boise, Pocatello officials had already been implementing their own Wi-Fi program. Pocatello officials were diappointed that they were not given state funds to continue expanding that program.

"The state chose to manage everything though the state department of education, as opposed to meeting the needs of individual school districts," said Pocatello Superintendent Mary M. Vagner. Pocatello plans to implement a bring-your-own-device program this year.

The state contract caused controversy when it was announced at the end of July. Luna, an elected Republican, argued that the most recent public school appropriations bill, which included a one-time allocation of $2.25 million for public school wireless infrastructure, signalled legislative support for the contract. However, some lawmakers said after the contract was announced that they did not intend for the money to be used for a long-term contract.

In an interview with the Idaho Spokesman-Review, Idaho state Senate Finance Committee Chairman Dean Cameron, a Republican in the GOP-controlled legislature, said that the decision to sign a multi-year contract showed "a little bit of a lack of judgment."

"We did not agree and probably would not have agreed to a multiyear contract during last session," he said.

Though the deal has a term of 5 years with an option to renew for another 10 years, it also includes a non-appropriation clause, allowing the state to terminate the contract without penalty if the legislature fails to authorize the necessary funds.

The contract also raised eyebrows because of past contributions that Education Networks of America made to Luna's political campaigns, totaling $6,000 between 2009 and 2012. In addition, Garry Lough, the company's top Idaho employee, is a former member of Luna's department of education. The department of education says that a contract selection committee of education and technology professionals was formed to make sure that the proposals were evaluated objectively without input from Luna himself.

Education Networks of America hopes to begin visiting schools as soon as this week, with the goal of connecting every participating school by March 2014. Schools that opted out this year will have another chance to join in the years to come.

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