The Idaho Education Network’s broadband program to schools, aimed at keeping rural school districts current with their technology, has turned into a modern day version of Laurel & Hardy. Somewhere, Gov. Butch Otter must be saying, “Well, this is another fine mess you got me into.”
The governor’s broadband program, the crowning education achievement of his administration, could become a dismal failure if the Legislature doesn’t take some quick action. Kevin Richert of Idaho Education News reports that the Legislature has a couple of weeks to come up with $1.6 million to cover costs through June 30, or face the possibility of losing the program. Because of legal woes, the state has not been paying its bills to providers, and collectors want their money.
“It would certainly be within their right to pull the plug,” former Sen. John Goedde, who was hired by Otter to work on the broadband case, told reporters after meeting with legislative budget writers.
School officials from districts that have relied on the service, with little hope of paying for it on their own, have genuine cause for concern. There’s no guarantee that the Legislature will act swiftly, given the controversy surrounding the issue – from the $60 million contract that was ruled illegal to an audit that painted the program as a bit of a pricey white elephant. According to Richert’s story, Goedde is asking the legislators for a “bridge contract” to keep the program afloat, causing Sen. Dean Cameron of Rupert (a JFAC co-chair) to sarcastically ask if the new contract would be as “tainted” as the old one.
Other legislators, including Republican Rep. Judy Boyle of Midvale and Democrat Grant Burgoyne of Boise, have talked about reforming how state contracts are awarded and administered. Slapping together a new contract, and setting a tight deadline for shelling out $1.6 million, is not the kind of reform they had in mind.
Otter has put together a 22-member team to view long- and short-term contracts to ensure continued statewide network service. That, too, is not the kind of reform legislators had in mind. It’s like putting Bonnie and Clyde in charge of enforcing banking regulations. The problem was caused by the governor’s office changing the conditions of a contract that apparently was fine. If the governor’s office had left it alone, there would be no lawsuit, no expensive attorney fees to fight the suit and no court ruling against the state. The bills would be paid on time, the school districts would have their broadband connections, Goedde wouldn’t have a job, and Otter would be basking in the glory. Instead, the governor and legislators end up with a growing list of fine messes they got into.
Someone may be held accountable for all this in time. At the moment, second-guessing doesn’t solve the problem. The important issue for now is what the Legislature does in the next couple of weeks.
The Legislative Services Office recently conducted an audit of the program, and the findings are not flattering. According to an Associated Press story, “… slightly more than half of the schools surveyed aren’t using the equipment purchased through Idaho’s pricy broadband network and nearly 6 percent of the video-conferencing equipment can’t be located.”
Most of the missing equipment has been found, but there are other problems, as Richert’s reporting explains. “The majority of school districts don’t even use the videoconferencing equipment – and from 2014, more than half of the students who take Idaho Education Network classes attend just five of Idaho’s 115 school districts.”
But some school districts do use the program extensively. Weiser High School Principal Dave Davies says the network allows the school to provide and receive course work to and from other schools and students to take some college-level courses. “It levels the playing field for our rural districts,” he said.
“I don’t know why schools wouldn’t use it,” said Melba Superintendent Andy Grover, who partners with other districts on courses.
Not all school districts conduct course exchanges, as Weiser and Melba do. Mullan Principal Tom Durbin says schedules for course exchanges are difficult to coordinate for smaller districts. But he says his school takes full advantage of high-speed Internet connections.
Regardless of the extent of usage, Durbin thinks school districts are much better off with broadband than without it. That’s something for legislators to weigh.
“Without it, it would kick us back 10 or 15 years,” he said.