CenturyLink says it won’t shut down IEN system immediately; schools scramble for coverage

Idaho Education News//February 20, 2015

CenturyLink says it won’t shut down IEN system immediately; schools scramble for coverage

Idaho Education News//February 20, 2015

Horseshoe Bend SchoolFrom the crowded suburban West Ada School District to the Central Idaho’s remote South Lemhi district, schools are scrambling.

Meridian High School students take a Mountain View High School upper-level Spanish class over the Idaho Education Network. They need to procure high-speed Internet as best they can, and as quickly as they can, with the statewide Idaho Education Network in mothballs.

The schools received a brief reprieve Feb. 19 when Idaho Education Network contractor CenturyLink said it wouldn’t shut down the system immediately, even though the state owes the company more than $1 million from a voided network contract.

Sheri Davis, CenturyLink’s PR manager in Idaho, said in a prepared statement that the company was suspending shut-off to avoid disrupting service to students who depend on it.

“We committed to work with the governor, state leaders and (Education Networks of America) to find a path forward that continues providing this essential service to Idaho students and teachers without interruption, and addresses our need for payment for all services delivered,” Davis said.

But the clock is still ticking. Fellow network contractor ENA says it will shut off broadband to districts that don’t sign a contract by Feb. 27, Idaho Education News reported.

In West Ada, with or without the network, Idaho’s largest district is “set to go,” Superintendent Linda Clark said Feb. 19.  If necessary, the district will simply purchase broadband from Zayo, the contractor that already provides broadband to its elementary and middle schools.

West Ada has been taking preemptive steps to prepare for a possible shutdown. For example, the district of 36,000 students has been moving its email accounts off the Idaho Education Network.

The goal, Clark told Idaho EdNews, is to make sure that any disruption does not affect classes. West Ada uses the network’s videoconferencing equipment to share classes from high school to high school. From fall 2012 through spring 2014, 937 students took classes over the network.

Finding a solution will be more difficult in rural districts. In South Lemhi, the district’s Leadore School has a K-12 population of 74 students, and is one of a handful of buildings in the middle of a vast stretch of hills and fields — 120 miles from Idaho Falls, 110 miles from Rexburg and 45 miles from Salmon.

“We are not exactly a prime market for competition in broadband networks,” Superintendent/Principal Michael Jacobson said. “(The network) makes it affordable … We have a very limited technology budget in our district and the cost of providing our own broadband is a daunting task.”

Leadore School doesn’t use the network’s videoconferencing courses. But the school relies heavily on network broadband for course resources. Most middle and high school students take dual credit or online classes through Idaho Digital Learning Academy.

At this point Jacobson is considering all options to continue to supply high-speed Internet, including cell phone hotspotting through Verizon.

South Lemhi’s plight is not unique. Idaho Education News sent out a survey to 140 districts and charter schools to assess the scope of the broadband crisis. Three districts and charters that said they don’t have a broadband backup plan; South Lemhi, the Salmon River School District in Riggins and Vision Charter School in Caldwell.

“We’ll find a way to make it work,” Jacobson said. “In a rural district like ours broadband Internet really levels the playing field for our students, I can’t stress how important it is for all our students.”

Testing is a widespread concern, since schools will have to administer the online Idaho Standards Achievement Test by Smarter Balanced this spring. About 50 districts and charters responded to the Idaho Education News survey; nearly 60 percent of respondents said a switch in broadband vendors will affect testing.

A bill that would earmark $3.6 million to reimburse local school districts for short-term broadband contracts has passed the Idaho House with only one dissenting vote and was expected to go before the Senate the week of Feb. 23.