Reader's View by Steve Smylie: Idaho schools’ wi-fi deal is dubious on so many levels

July 31, 2013 

The recent decision to award a long-term state public schools Wi-Fi contract to ENA, a Tennessee-based company, brings to light a number of concerns about how Idaho is managing education.

This is not the first time that an out-of-state company was chosen over a local one, which bid half a million dollars less. This is not the first time that the company that gave generous campaign donations magically got the job. Nor is it the first time that the executives of this company just happened to be old supporters of the superintendent, a past official of the ruling party, oh, and recent member of the superintendent’s staff.

It seems like a classic good old boy contract. After all, it happens all the time in American politics. But this doesn’t mean that it passes the smell test.

It’s unfortunate that it took investigation by the media to reveal these things. It’s strange that the state could enter into a deal for as long as 15 years for technological services in an industry that is changing so rapidly that a two-year-old cell phone is considered outdated. It is even stranger that the deadline for local school districts to apply for these services was only days after the awarding of the contract. Amazingly, the winning company would get the same money whether every school district in the state or only a handful applied.

Indeed, school districts that were proactive and already put in Wi-Fi connections are in effect being penalized for their forward thinking.

Worse, this contract is a slap in the face to the voters of Idaho, who rejected Propositions 1, 2 and 3 last November, and to the two task forces that have been commissioned to study educational reform.

The governor appointed a commission made up of educational leaders, and the Legislature approved an interim committee to do the same. These committees are meeting this summer; why can’t the Department of Education wait for their findings before launching into multiyear deals?

It seems in Idaho that things like the voice of the people and the actions of the Idaho Legislature are merely considered “bumps in the road” by the superintendent, a man who has never taught in a public school, nor even holds an educational degree. While these actions did have legislative authorization (for one year) and were no doubt based on a sincere desire to make our schools better, they seem to be overstepping things. Keep in mind, Idaho schools have seen their budgets cut for three long years, and many teachers have had their pay frozen and supply money taken away. Class sizes are bigger, and even a legislative study concluded that teacher morale is dangerously low.

Of course, the Department of Education will point out that, technically, the decision was not done by the superintendent, but by a committee, but no one is fooled. The money trail is far too obvious to be mere coincidence.

As someone who spent a lifetime teaching children and who spent four terms in the Idaho Legislature, I am alarmed that a superintendent with absolutely no experience in either is backing such deals. Contracts like this one seem to be the result of a Department of Education that is dangerously disconnected from both the constitutionally mandated entity to oversee education (the Legislature), those who work every day with our children (our teachers) and the citizens of Idaho.

While the superintendent may have not personally made the deal, the poor handling of the whole affair falls directly upon him.

Steve Smylie, of Meridian, is a former Republican Idaho legislator and candidate for state superintendent.

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