Our View, Wi-Fi contract: Luna erred by not building a consensus

August 2, 2013 

Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna speaks before the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee Thursday morning at the Legislature. Luna proposed an across the board budget reduction in several areas including programs for expectant or delivered mothers, Idaho Reading Initiative, and the Gifted and Talented program, among others.Tom Luna speaks at the Joint Finance Committee Thursday morning at the Legislature.

CHRIS BUTLER — Chris Butler/Idaho Statesman

Though Tom Luna is in the education business, the superintendent of public instruction might have a lesson to learn before he launches his next initiative.

When his instincts to innovate with something like a Wi-Fi network for Idaho schools race ahead of communication and consensus-building — even if a project is mandated by the Idaho Legislature — we believe he would be wise to hit the pause button and redouble his efforts to keep interested parties updated. Let’s call it a no-surprises policy.

The fuel for criticism might have been reduced if Luna had reached out more, for instance, to the Idaho Division of Financial Management or consulted with the state Purchasing Division — even though he didn’t have to. There were avenues open to gain buy-in across the state. In hindsight, Luna said he would do things differently.

That’s good, because we can’t think of an Idaho elected official more polarizing than Tom Luna. So, for him to think he could casually unveil a $2.5 million potentially five-to 15-year contract with a Nashville, Tenn., company to provide Wi-Fi networks in Idaho schools and ruffle no feathers, is, well ... one of those surprises. When you add in the drama that in the past Luna received $6,000 in campaign funding from the winning bidders, Education Networks of America, and one of ENA’s employees used to work for him — we’re wondering if Luna needs a GPS device to remind him he walks on the precipice of controversy.

If he can’t get out front with explanations for some of these things, he can’t expect detractors to look the other way. There is an appearance of coziness all over this deal, but we don’t believe Luna is guilty of anything greater than gross obliviousness. Lots of groups want Wi-Fi in schools and an independent panel wanted ENA to do the job.

“Politically, this looks like a sweetheart deal, but the state of Idaho is getting a great deal,” said Jefferson Jewell, a well-respected high-tech consultant, businessman and member of the review committee that oversaw the bidding process that unanimously recommended ENA.

Why? ENA is best equipped and positioned and was the only company willing to take on ALL of the risk and allow Idaho to cancel the whole thing after the first year for the roughly $2 million up front asking price should the ldaho Legislature decide against refunding it. Other bidders wanted more than the $2 million as a hedge in the event legislators pulled the plug on funding.

Much of the criticism of this business contract comes from politicians and Luna critics who are gnawing away at the political appendages and not the heart of the deal.

“If you take Tom Luna out of the scenario, none of this would be happening,” said Jewell, who, in full disclosure pointed out that his present company, Xtreme Consulting Group, may have benefitted if an earlier Luna initiative to supply laptops to Idaho students had become reality.

Time will tell how useful the Wi-Fi network will be to students, but it is hard to fault the idea. School districts are merging technology and curriculum, and they ought to, because that is what is happening in the workplace and the world. Why else do you suppose the Coeur d’Alene School District is about to pony up $278,000 for a wireless network? It won’t be using the one Luna has signed Idaho up for, but dozens of other tiny and less-financially endowed districts around the state will. That is a good thing.

Luna and ENA have to prepare for participation that could range from 50 to 340 high schools. As of this week, 170 of the 340 have opted in. Meridian is in, but Boise hasn’t yet committed.

We hope Luna embraces the no-surprises lesson and his critics back off and let this project breathe.

“Our View” is the editorial position of the Idaho Statesman. It is an unsigned opinion expressing the consensus of the Statesman’s editorial board. To comment on an editorial or suggest a topic, email editorial@idahostatesman.com.

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