Idaho schools get bad news over broadband blues

Posted at 4:31 PM, May 05, 2016
and last updated 2016-05-05 18:53:07-04

The state has received another round of bad budget news stemming from the defunct Idaho Education Network project.

But it’s not immediately clear how big the problem is this time, and what it could mean for schools across the state.

Last week, school districts began receiving word that they will not receive federally administered “E-Rate” dollars to help cover their technology costs. When the word began to reach state superintendent Sherri Ybarra’s office, she fired off a letter to school administrators Monday.

The letter promised a “statewide response” to the latest funding setback. But in the letter, Ybarra suggested districts might want to consult with their legal counsel.

Her letter also offered no inkling about how much money is in limbo, or how many districts might be caught in a funding crunch.

At issue — once again — are e-Rate dollars. These dollars, collected through monthly landline and cell phone bills, have been applied to several purposes in Idaho.

The most prominent project was the Idaho Education Network, a statewide broadband system. E-Rate dollars initially paid about three-fourths of the costs of the network.

However, these payments have long been on hold. The Universal Service Administrative Company, a federal contractor, cut off the network payments during the ongoing legal battle over the project’s contract. A district judge and the Idaho Supreme Court have both declared the project contract void.

As a result of those rulings, the state might have to write off — or give back — some $25 million in e-Rate dollars tied to the Idaho Education Network.

But it now appears that the financial fallout from the Idaho Education Network fiasco could extend beyond the state’s broadband project.

School districts have used e-Rate money to pay for other technological projects, such as wide area network coverage. In her letter, Ybarra suggested the district’s e-Rate dollars may be in jeopardy as well.

“At this point, we do not have complete information,” she wrote.

Ybarra’s office provided no additional information Tuesday. Gov. Butch Otter’s office did not respond to a request for additional information. The same goes for the state Department of Administration — the agency that oversaw the Idaho Education Network.

Through spokesman Todd Dvorak, Attorney General Lawrence Wasden declined comment, citing attorney-client privilege.

In her letter, Ybarra sought to reassure school officials.

“In an effort to support you, we are working with the governor’s office, office of the attorney general and the Department of Administration on a statewide response regarding this matter,” Ybarra wrote. “It is the intent of all involved to find a solution that best supports Idaho school districts moving forward.”