Luna: Idaho school Wi-Fi deadline will be met

‘We’re on pace,’ he tells the House Education Committee during a briefing.

IDAHO EDUCATION NEWSFebruary 5, 2014 

Six weeks before a contract deadline, more than 80 high schools and junior high schools are still waiting for new Wi-Fi.

But Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna says that’s not a problem — all of the hookups will be in by March 15.

A House Education Committee briefing on the controversial Wi-Fi contract was strictly informational Tuesday — there is no legislation in the hopper addressing the multiyear contract, signed in July. Eventually, the Legislature will have to decide whether to continue funding the contract; Luna has requested an additional $2.25 million for 2014-15.

Luna updated lawmakers about progress on the project — funded, at least through June 30, with a $2.25 million budget line item approved last spring.

More than 80 percent of the state’s school districts signed on for the state-funded Wi-Fi, but the number of schools receiving it appears to be down from initial forecasts.

Originally, the state expected some 200 junior and senior high schools to receive the new service; on Tuesday, Luna pegged the figure at 176. The new Wi-Fi is operational in 93 schools, Luna said, and the state’s contractor, technology giant Education Networks of America, has that March 15 deadline to finish the project.

Luna signed the multiyear contract with ENA in July, drawing criticism from several key legislators who did not believe they had committed the state to a project that could run 15 years at a cost of more than $31 million. Gov. Butch Otter also questioned the process, but has recommended continued contract funding.

In contrast to last summer’s controversy, Luna was treated cordially in committee Tuesday. He fielded a wide-ranging array of questions, with only a few tough questions thrown in.

- Luna defended the decision to contract out the Wi-Fi work. Had the state done the work in-house, he said, taxpayers would have had to pay $8 million in up-front hardware costs. “I’m not confident that a state agency could do this as effectively or as efficiently,” he said.

- Luna defended clauses in the contract that allow ENA to continue to own the equipment it installs. He likened the language to household wireless, cellphone and cable TV contracts, which allow a customer to lease equipment and upgrade in the future. If the state renews its contract at the end of five years, ENA would be expected to upgrade the Wi-Fi agreement; if the contract ends after five years, ENA could be forced to pull out its old equipment.

- Luna explained a review committee’s unanimous decision to award the contract to the Nashville, Tenn.-based ENA, even though two Idaho companies submitted lower bids. ENA, which has made campaign contributions to Otter, Luna and more than 40 sitting legislators, has a strong history working in Idaho schools, as contractor on the Idaho Education Network broadband deal.

“ENA was not new to Idaho,” Luna said.

At one point during questioning, Rep. Lance Clow sided with Luna, suggesting that lawmakers should have known a year ago that they were embarking on a long-term project to install, maintain and repair Wi-Fi across the state.

“What did people expect they were going to get for $2.25 (million?)” said Clow, R-Twin Falls.

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