BOISE, Idaho — Some Idaho lawmakers were taken aback by State Schools Superintendent Tom Luna’s plan to award a statewide Wi-Fi network contract for up to 15 years without prior budget approval.
Luna is scheduled to award the contract by Thursday morning to equip Idaho’s roughly 340 high schools with the wireless Internet technology.
His spokeswoman, Melissa McGrath, said the 2013 Senate bill that set the state’s public school budget called on Luna to enter a statewide contract. The contract calls for an initial term of five years, with options to renew up to 15 years.
But the Spokesman-Review reports Idaho Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, a Republican from Rupert, insists the bill allocated $2.25 million to set up wireless infrastructure only during the next fiscal year and included nothing about a long-term contract. Cameron said the budget committee wouldn’t have agreed to a multi-year contract and Luna’s move shows a lack of judgment.
To contend that the Legislature backed funding for a multiple-year contract is “certainly a stretch, and perhaps borderline on a lack of honesty,” Cameron said. “We did not agree and probably would not have agreed to a multiyear contract during last session, particularly given the financial straits that we believed we were under.”
McGrath said the state’s effort to find potential bidders on a statewide contract began on June 3 and was publicized in a press release — distributed to media sites and on the department’s website. She said the department already has multiple-year contracts, including a $950,000 annual pact that allows high school juniors to take a college entrance test, that haven’t been subjected to similar criticism.
What’s more, McGrath said this pending Wi-Fi contract contains a clause that allows the state to exit, if the Legislature doesn’t approve funding in subsequent years, for instance, in the event of another fiscal crisis like one that followed the recession that started in late 2007.
“There’s always a clause in any contract that we have where it’s renewed every year based on the money we receive from the Legislature,” she said.
The state Department of Education’s request for proposals issued earlier this year specified that the successful bidder for the work would own all the equipment it installs in roughly 340 Idaho high schools. And if the contract is canceled for any reason, the winning bidder would be required to remove the wireless networks from schools.
Some lawmakers said such provisions make it unclear what Idaho will get for its money.
“It sounds to me like we could get into it five years and have many millions of dollars invested, but you’re still going to forfeit it if you don’t go the full length of the contract,” said Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg. “That just doesn’t seem like a prudent way to do it.”
Another thing that has lawmakers concerned is the State Department of Education is uncertain how many high schools would actually avail themselves of the services, since some already have Wi-Fi.
“We do not have a count of schools that already have high-speed wireless,” McGrath said, adding those with service won’t be forced to switch but many may, since the contracted service is expected to be faster than existing providers.
“Forty-four schools so far have opted in,” she said. “We expect more to opt in, as soon as we announce it.”
Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, a vice chair of the budget committee, said this lack of knowledge was a gap that needed addressing.
“That seems like that ought to be homework we need to be doing ahead of awarding a contract like this,” Keough said.