Idaho lawmakers are approving funding to expand the state’s broadband Internet program for public schools, but asking for more oversight on the program that’s facing a lawsuit over how a contract for the program was decided. The Idaho Education Network (IEN) is designed to increase high-speed Internet access and broaden course offerings at Idaho public high schools. Lawmakers on the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee (JFAC) approved spending a $3 million grant from the Albertsons Foundation for IEN, but are asking for more oversight on how the Idaho Department of Administration runs the program.
Funding for IEN was approved as part of the administration department’s budget, which is the last to be set by JFAC. “This has been probably one of the most difficult budgets that I’ve worked on this year,” said Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, a member of JFAC. A decision on the administration budget had been delayed as lawmakers waited for a mediation between the Department of Administration and Syringa Networks, a collective of telecommunications companies that filed a lawsuit over not winning a contract to provide service for IEN. Reports are that the mediation between Syringa and the state failed. Several lawmakers called the lawsuit an 800-pound gorilla looming over the IEN issue.
The vote for the administration budget was approved on an 18-2 vote by JFAC, though there was concern from some lawmakers. “I’m still very uncomfortable,” said Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, who voted for the plan. “Because of the lawsuit, no matter what action this body takes, it gives the inference that we’re siding with one side or the other … That’s not our desire. We’d like to see the Idaho Education Network go forward.”
Rep. Fred Wood, R-Burley, said lawmakers should allow the private money from the Albertsons Foundation go to IEN. “They have dealt with the state before, and they are going into this with their eyes wide open,” Wood said. The Albertsons Foundation also provided funding for the ISIMS project, the state’s last attempt to expand Internet access at schools. “If these were general tax dollars, I may very well have a different opinion about what’s going on here,” he said.
Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, said she’d heard that if lawmakers didn’t include the $3 million for IEN, the budget might be vetoed by the governor. Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna had said that not funding the $3 million would be akin to pushing a kill switch on IEN.
Lawmakers didn’t go that route, but did include requirements that the managers of IEN, the Idaho Education Network Program and Resources Advisory Council (IPRAC), report back to JFAC every three months. Those quarterly reports would include changes to the IEN business plan, a list of schools, businesses, and state agencies that have been connected to IEN, and the companies that are providing services through IEN. Cameron said the requirements are more milquetoast than he’d prefer, but will give lawmakers some oversight.
“It’s pretty focused on shining a light from now on,” Ringo said. JFAC also introduced legislation that would reorganize IPRAC. Currently, the superintendent of public instruction has broad authority in how many people can serve on IPRAC. The changes would add four legislators to IPRAC and allow the superintendent to appoint six members to the council that manages IEN. The director of the Department of Administration and the director of the Idaho Digital Learning Academy would also be on IPRAC.
“We want it to be accountable and we want transparency,” Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, said about IPRAC.
The Albertsons Foundation is offering $3 million for IEN for the next two years. After that , it is unclear where IEN will receive funding. The budget for the administration department, including IEN, now needs approval from the Idaho House and Senate. The plans to change IPRAC membership will head to a legislative committee before facing full votes.