Idaho schools superintendent defends wireless contract

The winning company has ties to the school chief, but officials say that wasn’t a factor.

July 26, 2013 

A Twin Falls company specializing in running school Wi-Fi networks and content filtering undercut the winning bid from a Nashville company by 24 percent to install wireless equipment in Idaho’s high schools.

Tek-Hut Inc. offered to put filtered wireless equipment in schools for $1.6 million a year, part-owner Nate Bondelid told the Idaho Statesman. That compares to $2.1 million from Education Network of America, the company that received the state contract.

Tom Luna, state superintendent of public instruction, issued the contract this week to ENA to run Wi-Fi networks with options that could extend the contract for 15 years, despite criticism from lawmakers that they never knew about the multiyear contract.

“ENA has a very strong relationship with the state of Idaho,” said Bondelid. It’s difficult, he said, to “play ball with people who are connected politically.”

ENA already has an $8 million-a-year contract with the state to operate the Idaho Education Network, bringing broadband to Idaho schools. ENA donated $6,000 to Luna’s campaign between 2009 and 2012, and its top employee in Idaho, Garry Lough, worked for Luna at the Idaho Department of Education before joining the company last year.

Neither of the other two companies that were finalists has ties to Luna.

Luna said he did not take part in the bidding process or review of the companies.

“That was all done by an independent group that I never met with,” Luna said. “It was a very transparent and a very appropriate process.”

MEMBER SAYS PANEL WAS INDEPENDENT

The committee of nine, which unanimously chose ENA, included people from business, school districts and the Idaho Department of Education.

Jefferson Jewell is regional vice president for Xtreme Consulting Group, an information technology services company with offices in Boise. He served on the committee and said he never discussed the bidding with Luna or even received an email from him.

He scored the technical parts of the bids without knowing what the companies had bid on costs.

“I didn’t get the feeling that anybody stacked the deck one way or the other,” Jewell said.

Bondelid said his company knew going in that the bid wouldn’t be awarded strictly on price. The scoring was divided into three equal parts — cost, technology, and company qualifications and interviews, Idaho Department of Education spokeswoman Melissa McGrath said. ENA scored the best overall, she said.

Jewell said ENA has done large-scale projects before and he believed the company could invest the resources on the front end to make the project work. “They have played that game before,” he said.

IS A CONTRACT NEEDED?

Sen. Dean Cameron and Rep. Maxine Bell, co-chairs of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, criticized Luna’s decision to seek the multiyear contract and questioned whether a statewide contract is even needed to provide Wi-Fi to high schools, rather than just giving school districts the money to hire local providers.

McGrath said a statewide contract with a single vendor that owns all the equipment is more cost-effective. “When you begin to buy infrastructure, the cost is going to go up into the tens of millions,” she said.

In picking Nashville-based ENA, Luna passed over both Tek-Hut and Ednetics, a Post Falls company founded by Shawn Swanby in 1997 when he was still a University of Idaho student.

Ednetics has more than 60 employees and develops and installs networks and other infrastructure in school districts and universities throughout the Northwest.

Tek-Hut, which started in 2001, has done work for 70 of Idaho’s 115 school districts and a total of 200 districts in Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Colorado and Nebraska.

The Statesman has filed a public records request for details on the bids.

Betsy Russell of The Spokesman-Review and Statesman reporter Bill Roberts contributed.

Eighty-three high schools from 48 districts, including the state's largest, Meridian, have opted into the Wi-Fi service to be provided by ENA, state education officials say.

Meridian has Wi-Fi in its high schools but doesn’t have capacity for all students to use their mobile devices at once, said Eric Exline, district spokesman. ENA will beef up the capacity to let students use devices such as tablets and smartphones.

The Meridian district, which faces a dwindling reserve account, doesn’t have the money to upgrade its Wi-Fi, so it will take advantage of the state program, Exline said.

The Nampa School District also wants in on the state program when it becomes available. It would allow the district to take money it has used for wireless technology and deploy it elsewhere, officials say.

The Boise School District is studying the proposal.

Who reviewed the Wi-Fi bids?

The review committee was:

Jerry Reininger, information services director, Meridian School District.

Will Goodman, director of technology, Mountain Home School District.

Chris Campbell, Genesee School District.

David McCauley, director, POD Solutions.

Jefferson Jewell, regional vice president, Xtreme Consulting Group.

Todd King, IT resource manager, Idaho Department of Education.

Todd Lawrence, technology coordinator, Idaho Department of Education.

Roger Sargent, Idaho System for Education Excellence Region III coordinator, Idaho Department of Education.

Louie Konkol, chief fiscal officer, Idaho Department of Education.

Who wants Wi-Fi?

Eighty-three high schools from 48 districts, including the state's largest, Meridian, have opted into the Wi-Fi service to be provided by ENA, state education officials say.

Meridian has Wi-Fi in its high schools but doesn’t have capacity for all students to use their mobile devices at once, said Eric Exline, district spokesman. ENA will beef up the capacity to let students use devices such as tablets and smartphones.

The Meridian district, which faces a dwindling reserve account, doesn’t have the money to upgrade its Wi-Fi, so it will take advantage of the state program, Exline said.

The Nampa School District also wants in on the state program when it becomes available. It would allow the district to take money it has used for wireless technology and deploy it elsewhere, officials say.

The Boise School District is studying the proposal.

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