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With contract signed, focus now turns to funding

Now that state officials have signed a $180 million deal to put laptop computers in the hands of Idaho high school students and teachers, the challenge facing lawmakers when they come to Boise in January may be finding the cash to pay for the program.

On Oct. 23, Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter and public schools chief Tom Luna announced that Hewlett-Packard submitted the low bid and won the eight-year contract. Integrating laptops into high school classrooms statewide is a key component the Students Come First education overhaul pushed by Luna and approved by lawmakers in 2011.

The fate of putting laptops in public schools will ultimately be decided by voters Nov. 6. If voters reject Proposition 3, the laptop plan will be scrapped, saving lawmakers from having to make another tough financial decision at a time when the state economy is showing signs of emerging from recession.

But if Proposition 3 survives, lawmakers will have to find more than $9.9 million to cover the costs of getting the first batch of laptops in the hands of a third of high school students next fall.

The annual price increases to more than $18 million the following year when another one-third of students get machines, then grows to more than $26 million in the third year when all students have the devices, according to contract details obtained by The Associated Press Oct. 24.

The contract obligates the state to pay $26.4 million each of the last four years of the deal and includes a $14.2 million buyout clause if the state opts out.

“There is a little sticker shock there,” said Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, who co-chairs the Joint Finance Appropriations Committee. “It’s a little concerning to me. But we all chose to think that this was the direction the state needed to go.”

Under terms of the contract, the state will pay about $300 per student — per year — for the computers. That price also includes costs for maintenance and repairs, software upgrades, professional training for teachers and upgrades to wireless networks in classrooms to handle the increase in online traffic. Computers will also be replaced with new models every four years, according to the contract.

In 2011, when lawmakers were considering the laptop plan, Luna and his staff estimated the cost for five years at $60.8 million. When costs for improving the wireless infrastructure are added to the equation, staff pegged the total five-year price tag at $70.8 million.

Melissa McGrath, spokeswoman at the Department of Education, said those estimates were based on costs provided by officials in Maine, a state that already operates a student laptop program.

Bell and her counterpart on the budget writing committee, Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said they aren’t surprised Idaho’s contract exceeded the department’s estimates.

“I think most knew at the time that the estimates given two years ago were on the low side,” Cameron said. “I don’t think anyone was trying to do anything to oversell it. I just think that’s the nature of technology. But I also think it’s important that we have the best product for the money. I expect the technology roll out will still be a high priority.”

If approved by voters next month, Luna hopes to distribute laptops early next year to more than 6,500 teachers at a cost of $1.9 million. Earlier this year, lawmakers appropriated $2.5 million to cover that phase of the program.

At this point, Idaho’s revenue forecast projects lawmakers will have a little more cash to spend than anticipated for the 2014 budget. Revenue for September beat projections by 3.7 percent, pushing year-to-date revenues through September to a half-percent above expectations, or $668.5 million.

There will likely be heated debates over how to spend any extra cash, Bell said, acknowledging that funding for public schools, Medicaid and other programs suffered cuts in the last few years when state revenue declined amid the recession.

For opponents of the laptop program, and the other components of Students Come First, the $180 million the state will spend in the next eight years on computers is better served on other classroom initiatives.

“In a time of scare resources, with a school system that has been cash strapped for so long, is this the best use of taxpayer money?” said Brian Cronin, a Democratic lawmaker from Boise who is leading the campaign to repeal the education laws. “I think a lot of people are asking the question: Do our kids really need to be spending more time on the Internet? To be prepared for the global economy, do kids need more screen time? I think most people would say no.”

On the ballot, voters will be asked to vote “yes” or “no” on Proposition 1, which deals with new restrictions on teachers union bargaining; Proposition 2, which centers on Idaho’s new merit pay plan for teachers, and Proposition 3.

The wording on the ballot means that a “yes” vote is in favor of the new laws, while a “no” vote is to overturn.

About The Associated Press