Murky future for school broadband network

The legislature continues to sort out the funding and overall status of the program.

IDAHO EDUCATION NEWSMarch 16, 2014 

Legislative budget-writers have cut a deal - and drafted a plan - to keep Idaho's high school broadband network online through February. After that, this convoluted budget crisis could take more twists and turns, and leave the 2015 Legislature trying to sort out the state's next moves.

Before trying to sort out the future, let's start by looking at the short term.

AN INCREMENTAL DEAL

Last week, the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee approved a $4.8 million bailout for the beleaguered Idaho Education Network. This would be enough money to replace eight months of federally administered network funding.

The deal wouldn't cover the entire 2014-15 school year - or the state's 2014-15 budget year, which begins July 1 and runs through June 30, 2015. And that's deliberate.

"Candidly, from my perspective … we wanted to go a step at a time, ease into it," said JFAC co-chairman Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, minutes before the committee approved the budget on a 19-1 vote. Sen. Dan Johnson, R-Lewiston, cast the lone dissenting vote.

Lawmakers have been blindsided and befuddled by the broadband funding crunch since the news broke at a Jan. 30 JFAC hearing. And it's clear that JFAC wants a handle on things moving forward. One section of budget "intent language" would require an audit of the Idaho Education Network, to find out how schools are using the network, and what students are learning through broadband curriculum.

"The (network) is not a success if we are just providing Internet service," said Cameron.

But budget-writers also want more answers about the program's budget woes. That's why they're only funding the network through February - and are balking at Gov. Butch Otter's request for $7.3 million, which would keep the system whole through June 2015. If they have to fork over more money next year, Cameron hopes lawmakers will have more information in hand.

NO CLEAR TIMETABLE

Here's a recap of what lawmakers know. They've long known that the Idaho Education Network contract, signed in 2009, remains embroiled in a lawsuit in state District Court. They now know, much to their surprise, that when the Universal Service Administrative Company got wind of the lawsuit, the Federal Communications Commission contractor put a stop on the "e-rate" funds that pay 75 percent of the Idaho Education Network's bills.

Without the e-rate dollars, collected from cellphone and landline bills, lawmakers are left with few easy choices. They can pick up the slack, or lose a program that serves 90,000 students across the state, and provides high-speed Internet to rural pockets where the service is otherwise scarce. That's their dilemma, for at least this year.

Looking into the future, there's no way of predicting when the court will act - or when USAC will complete its review of the Idaho Education Network's contract.

The District Court may hear the lawsuit in six months, said Merlyn Clark, an outside attorney representing the state in the case. Or it could be nine months.

And USAC is tough to read, and perhaps even tougher to prod into action.

"There's no way to make USAC do anything," Clark told the Idaho Education Network's Program Resource Advisory Council, or IPRAC, a panel of lawmakers and state and school officials which oversees the network. "They operate on their own time schedule."

In other words, JFAC's hope to have more answers by the 2015 session may be just that: a hope.

A ROLE FOR DISTRICTS?

One of the big wild cards in the Idaho Education Network funding fiasco is this: What happens if USAC finds the state's contract null and void? The feds could require the state to return $13.3 million in past e-rate payments. And on top of that, they could blacklist the state from seeking e-rate money in the future.

Clark first mentioned that possibility to the Senate Education Committee Monday. He downplayed that possibility Wednesday, saying USAC usually only bars funding in cases involving fraud or abuse.

"I don't think that's a real risk here, but it is there," he said.

But regardless of what happens with the state's standing, there's a chance school districts might be asked to take the lead on collecting e-rate dollars.

There's no time for districts to get applications in for 2014-15. But by the time the 2015 Legislature convenes, Cameron says, the state should have a better idea of where things stand, and whether the districts will need to step up.

Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, an IPRAC member, said districts may need to start planning for this possibility sooner, not later.

"As a backstop, I think we have to do that," Goedde, R-Coeur d'Alene, said Wednesday.

A PATH TO ADJOURNMENT?

If the $4.8 million bailout passes, it would keep broadband in the high schools at least until the 2015 legislative session.

And the bill could provide lawmakers with a path to adjourn the 2014 session by their target date: March 21, or just less than two months before the May 20 primary elections.

Broadband is one issue lawmakers do need to resolve before adjourning: In essence, they have to decide whether to keep the network in place or scrap it. And no lawmakers are publicly advocating the latter.

The Legislature has already provided $6.6 million to keep the network online through June 30. That bill awaits Otter's signature, and while it falls short of his initial $7.15 million request, he has indicated his support. The same goes for the $4.8 million bailout for 2014-15.

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