Idaho Signs Contract For High School Wi-Fi Amid Storm Of Criticism

Jul 25, 2013

Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tom Luna.
Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tom Luna.
Credit Adam Cotterell / Boise State Public Radio

Idaho’s Department of Education signed a contract Wednesday for $2.1 million a year with Tennessee-based company Education Networks of America (ENA) to provide Wi-Fi internet access to the state’s high schools. But that came after a day of criticism around the decision.

The Spokesman-Review reported Tuesday that schools superintendent Tom Luna was poised to sign a 15-year, multi-million dollar contract without legislative approval. The story quoted several lawmakers who condemned Luna for the decision. But those reactions were based, in part, on what Education Department spokesperson Melissa McGrath says was incorrect information.

“This is only a five year contract,” McGrath says. “And then as far as the concerns expressed, if legislators have those concerns that’s something we need to address and we’re making those phone calls.”

The $1.3 billion school’s budget lawmakers passed this year set aside $2.25 million to connect high schools with wireless internet. McGrath says the best way to fulfill that charge was through a multi-year contract which she says is standard. This one can be renewed twice, hence the possibility of it extending for 15 years.

The Associated Press reports the agreement could provide Wi-Fi to as many as 340 Idaho high schools that do not already have it. However, only 83 schools have signed up for it so far.

McGrath says the contract can be canceled without penalty if lawmakers don't fund a second year. However, any hardware installed in schools would be removed because the state isn’t buying it, just contracting for the service. 

One lawmaker McGrath reached out to is Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill (R-Rexburg). In the Spokesman-Review article Hill called the move “imprudent.” He now says the five year contract may be the most practical way to handle the Wi-Fi money and that Luna acted within his authority.

“We’ve got to remember we have a citizen legislature that only meets for about three months out of the year and government can’t just, you know, sit on its thumbs for the other nine months,” Hill says. “He made a decision he needed to make which he thinks is in the best interest of the schools and the people of Idaho.”

ENA has contributed to Luna’s election campaign several times. The contributions total $8,500 since 2007. McGrath says the company’s bid was the best of nine the department received.

“An independent review committee went and looked through all of those proposals and unanimously agreed that the state should award the contract to Education Networks of America,” she says.  

ENA has had other contracts with the state of Idaho including one similar to the one signed Wednesday that was eliminated when voters rejected the Students Come First laws last November.

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