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School broadband costs climb

Idaho’s high school broadband costs are trending upward — but the local Internet contracts still represent big savings from the defunct Idaho Education Network.

In the West Ada School District, Idaho’s largest, high-speed Internet costs could climb from $4,200 a month to $5,880 a month.

Earlier this year, after a court ruling left the statewide system in mothballs, districts secured short-term broadband service at surprising discounts. By and large, those savings should continue into 2015-16, according to preliminary budget requests obtained by Idaho Education News.

But the cost increases, while slight, raise a question for the future: Are the current savings sustainable?

The 2015-16 budget requests are unverified and incomplete. About a dozen districts and charter schools have not yet put in a request. And the State Department of Education hasn’t completed its reviews.

The key numbers:

So far, districts and charter schools have requested close to $216,000 a month for high-speed Internet.

In March, after districts and charters scrambled to replace the defunct statewide network, they submitted claims totaling $193,000 a month.

Both of these figures come in far below the Idaho Education Network costs. In March, the State Department of Education pegged network costs at $731,000 a month.

Based on the preliminary requests, the local broadband projects would appear to fit easily within the state’s budget. The requests for monthly and one-time funding come in at slightly more than $2.6 million. The 2015 Legislature set aside $6.3 million to reimburse broadband costs in 2015-16.

The requests vary widely, from $99.99 a month in Fruitland to $11,739 a month in Lakeland. Some costs are going up: Boise is requesting $3,300 a month, up from $1,163, while St. Maries is asking for $9,307.88, up from $1,933.33. In Fremont County, meanwhile, costs have tumbled from $11,835.75 per month to an $1,100-per-month request this year.

For the State Department of Education, the increases are troubling. If local vendors raise their prices, the state will have to absorb the costs on districts’ behalf — without the cushion that comes through pooling.

“These preliminary requests are not sustainable in the long-run, which points to the statewide solution as the opportunity to support districts while keeping costs low,” said Jeff Church, a spokesman for state superintendent Sherri Ybarra.

More broadband bad news

The preliminary 2015-16 requests comes after a series of troubling revelations about the politics of the broadband fiasco — and the potential costs to taxpayers.

The week of July 13, the Associated Press revealed that Gov. Butch Otter knew about the broadband budget crunch in October 2013, three months before lawmakers and the public knew about it. It wasn’t until Jan. 30, 2014 that then-Administration Department director Teresa Luna acknowledged delays in “e-Rate” funding — federally administered telephone surcharges that had accounted for 75 percent of the network’s budget.

Also, a Boise firm has received more than $1 million to mount an unsuccessful legal defense of the network contract. State officials disclosed the rising costs to Idaho Education News the week of July 13. And district Judge Patrick Owen has ordered the state to pay more than $930,000 in legal fees to Syringa Networks, the company that successfully sued to overturn the broadband contract.

Lawsuits could be on the way. The state did not respond to two tort claims from ENA and subcontractor Qwest Communications, seeking at least $6 million in payments put on hold during the legal dispute. The state had 90 days to respond to the tort claims, filed in March. Now that the deadline has passed, ENA and Qwest are free to sue.

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