By guest blogger Danielle Wilson
Idaho lawmakers have agreed to make $6.6 million in back payments to keep high-speed Internet access in high schools through the end of the school year.
A state budget committee unanimously voted this week to provide funding to the Tenn.-based telecommunications contractor Education Networks of America, according to the Spokesman-Review. The money will take the place of payments from E-rate funding, which were halted a year ago amid a legal dispute.
The Idaho Department of Administration has asked state lawmakers to approve a larger amount of funding, $14.5 million, to cover the costs of the broadband network contract through the end of next school year. Lawmakers have not yet decided whether or not to pay the remaining amount not covered by the $6.6 million.
That initial payment would keep 90,000 students connected through the Idaho Education Network, the system that provides Web access as well as video-conferencing and distance-learning courses.
The funding shortfall can be traced to a decision by the FCC, which oversees the E-rate program, to stop funding for Idaho's Web services until an ongoing lawsuit was resolved. The Idaho Supreme Court is hearing a case alleging that state officials violated purchasing rules by amending the broadband network contract to favor one company over another.
The FCC has not said when it would release the funds, leaving officials scrambling for a solution that would ensure that the network stays in place this school year and next.
Idaho department of administration officials said they were notified in July 2013 that E-rate payments had not been made to Education Networks of America since March of last year, around the same time the Idaho Supreme Court began reviewing the lawsuit.
Teresa Luna, director of the Idaho department of administration, told members of the education and budget committees about the situation earlier this month. Idaho lawmakers said they were surprised to learn that the state had renewed the broadband contract with Education Networks of America through 2019 for $10 million in January 2013. The original five-year contract wasn't up for renewal until January 2014, said The Spokesman-Review.
According to the article, Luna had requested $6.6 million for the current school year, and $7.3 million for next year. The department of administration is also seeking $550,000 in payback for agency funds used to front the money to Education Networks of America on behalf of the Idaho Education Network. Legislators have not yet acted on her requests for the $7.3 million and $550,000.
In the lawsuit, Syringa Networks, an Idaho-based telecommunications company, alleges that former department of administration Director Mike Gwartney and Chief Technology Officer Greg Zickau illegally changed the work agreement between the state and telecommunication providers CenturyLink (formerly Qwest) and Education Networks of America. Syringa had submitted a joint proposal with Education Networks of America to the state with intent to be the subcontractor providing technical network services, while Education Networks would be the service provider and coordinator.
After contracts were awarded to both CenturyLink and Education Networks, Syringa alleges Gwartney and Zickau amended the contracts to make CenturyLink the exclusive provider of technical network services, the role Syringa agreed to fill as subcontractor for Education Networks.
Even if the FCC reinstates the E-rate payment for the 2015 fiscal year, that wouldn't necessarily solve the state's problem.
If the contract is found to violate state purchasing laws, Idaho may still be required to pay back the estimated $13.3 million paid since 2010 to the Idaho Education Network.
In an interview with Education Week, Rep. Darrell Bolz, Vice Chairman of the House Appropriations committee said his immediate concern is keeping the service provider, Education Networks, from pulling the plug on Idaho students.
"We will take steps to make sure the IEN is not shut down," he said. "It is especially important for our rural districts where the Internet availability and quality is not as good as what the IEN can provide."
In granting the $6.6 million, the state required that it be notified, and reimbursed, if the federal E-rate funding became available.
"The department of administration is pleased to have a path forward for the current fiscal year," said Jennifer Pike, a spokeswoman for the agency, in a statement to Education Week.
The state currently receives up to 75 percent reimbursement through the E-rate federal program, which provides discounts to schools and libraries on telecommunications services.
The Idaho Education Network currently provides high-speed broadband connectivity to 218 high schools throughout the state with the assistance of E-rate funding. The network has cost an estimated $29 million dollars to operate from its launch in 2010 through January 2014. Idaho had planned a $3.5 million expansion of the broadband network to elementary and middle schools next year.