If you follow politics, you know it isn’t easy to get Idaho Democrats and Republicans to agree on something, but Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna managed it. Unfortunately, what they agreed on is that they’re unhappy with something he did.
This year’s education budget included $2.25 million for a pilot project to improve wireless networking (wifi) inside high schools. However, Luna committed Idaho to $2.11 million per year for the next five years – and might extend the contract for two more five-year periods after that. Also, he awarded the contract to a firm that not only was controversial before, but donates money to Luna and several other legislators.
If you’ve heard of the Idaho Education Network (IEN), you may wonder what the wifi network is. Like we have I84, the Connector, and Highway 69 from the Idaho Transportation Department, and local roads from the Ada County Highway Department, the IEN provides high-bandwidth, high-speed Internet to Idaho high schools, while wifi lets students connect their computers, laptops, and smartphones to the Internet wirelessly. (The alternative would be finding a way for 35 kids in each classroom to plug into the Internet using a cable.).
But if the Legislature budgeted $2.25 million for wifi, what’s the problem with a contract of $2.11 million a year for five years? It’s that the state budget has two kinds of money.
One is ongoing – that is, it’s part of the regular budget, there’s revenue coming in regularly to pay for it, and it’s safe to assume the state will fund it next year.
The other kind is one-time. That is, the income is special in some way and isn’t likely to be repeated in future years, so state agencies aren’t supposed to use it for expenses that will continue in future years. It’s disruptive – someone hired using one-time money might get laid off the following year. It’s like the way you get a tax refund or some other unexpected source of money – you don’t want to use it to pay the rent, figuring that some other money will pop up next month to pay the rent with. Instead, you use it for something special, like getting a TV or new tires for the truck.
The $2.25 million in the budget for wifi was one-time money, from $34 million appropriated to the Governor’s Education Task Force. So it was inappropriate to spend it on something ongoing, because we don’t know whether the state will have money next year to pay for it. Plus, if the state doesn’t pay for it, the vendor can rip out all the wifi equipment.
The winning bid came from Education Networks of America (ENA), which also won the bid to provide the IEN. In fact, that connection is part of what won them the contract. However, when the IEN contract was awarded, another applicant, Syringa Networks, sued because it said that process wasn’t fair.
Some other wifi vendors say this process wasn’t fair, either, though none of them has filed a lawsuit yet. For example, ENA didn’t have the lowest bid. And while of course you want to make sure the hired company can actually do the work, it’s been suggested ENA got too much credit for its IEN connection. Also, ENA has donated thousands of dollars to political campaigns, which some people think makes it look like something hinky is going on.
The biggest problem is the five-year contract. How did you use the Internet five years ago? What kind of cellphone did you have? It will be interesting to see whether the wifi contract keeps up with technology.