Will anything come of Idaho high schools' Wi-Fi flap?

Top leaders don't seemed too worked up, but a committee co-chair isn't letting go.

broberts@idahostatesman.comAugust 1, 2013 

State Sen. Dean Cameron, co-chair of the state's budget committee, says he wants to see a resolution in the dispute over a state contract to install wireless equipment in high schools.

Cameron, R-Rupert, says that when lawmakers meet in January, he won't rule out the "nuclear option" of trying to yank the $2.5 million that lawmakers appropriated for the contract that eventually went to Education Networks of America. That would be in the middle of the state budget year.

Cameron said he's had a couple of conversations with Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna. "We are at odds searching for a way to address it," Cameron told the Idaho Statesman.

Luna has been sharply criticized for taking what some legislators - including Cameron - thought was one-time money and putting it into a multiyear contract with ENA.

Critics also complain that the contract went to a company that contributed money to Luna even though Luna said the selection was made by an independent committee. The out-of-state company was selected over at least one lower bidder from Idaho.

Cameron said he's looking at several options short of a last-resort effort to defund the contract in midyear, but declined to offer any details on what he's examining.

Legislative leaders aren't yet persuaded that anything needs to be done.

State Sen. Brent Hill, Senate president pro tem, said he spoke with Cameron and encouraged the budget co-chair to continue pursuing the matter.

But Hill said he thinks that Luna was simply trying to find a way to meet the challenge of getting wireless equipment into every Idaho high school.

"I have a hard time faulting him for that," Hill said. "I have a great deal of trust (for people) in that department. I give them the benefit of the doubt."

The Legislature might want to look at whether a multiyear contract was the best option, Hill said.

"We may be glad we did it," he said.

House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, looks at the controversy from what he calls the 10,000-foot view. Idaho schools, particularly rural ones, need wireless equipment for education. It's "absolutely critical in rural high schools, so we can offer a full complement of curricula," said Bedke.

Bedke said Luna did nothing wrong by creating a multiyear contract.

Contracts with the state typically have an escape clause that lets Idaho back out if lawmakers don't fund it, so a multiyear contract doesn't lock the state into a long-term arrangement, Bedke said. That's the same argument Luna has made defending his actions.

Bedke also doesn't think the Wi-Fi contract steps on the toes of either Gov. Butch Otter's or the Legislature's committees meeting this summer on ways to improve education. Whatever they recommend, Bedke said, will almost certainly require beefing up wireless capabilities in schools.

Bill Roberts: 377-6408, Twitter: @IDS_BillRoberts

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