- Associated Press - Monday, June 9, 2014

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - Progress on securing $14 million in missing funds to pay for Idaho’s education broadband program has been minimal since lawmakers first heard of the lapse in federal payments earlier this year, an official said Monday.

State education officials say they’ve made contact with the federal government about the issue but that’s all they’ve been able to do so far.

“We’ve got someone that we can talk to at this point,” Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane told state budget writers. “They seem somewhat receptive but they’re also skeptical.”

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna said he mentioned the missing funds to the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission close to two months ago while in Washington, D.C.

Within an hour, Luna said, the nonprofit Universal Service Administrative Co.. which is overseeing the federal e-rate funds - was in contact with Luna and other state officials.

The funds were collected from phone bills to be distributed to schools, and the nonprofit was supposed to pay the majority of the money to Education Networks of America, the state’s contractor on the broadband project known as the Idaho Education Network.

More than 200 state high schools are part of the broadband program. The program has set up schools with video teleconference equipment, which allows teachers to offer classes to students across the state and increase the amount of dual-credit classes students can take to help prepare for college.

The federal government stopped the payments last year, however, because of a lawsuit challenging the ENA contract and decided to conduct an internal review.

The state was forced to pay the full tab this year. Shocked lawmakers bristled when the news was revealed in January, but officials expect to be paid back once the review and lawsuit are completed.

Usually when Universal Service Administrative Co. investigates a contract, it’s because of fraud but that’s not happening in Idaho because the services are being provided, Kane said. Instead, it’s a dispute over who should have been given the contract.

“What they perceive to be the problem isn’t the problem,” he said.

Committee co-chair and state Sen. Dean Cameron of Rupert reminded officials that lawmakers only approved enough funding to pay for the broadband program until February.

Budget writers decided to appropriate only enough funding for just six months into fiscal year 2015 with the hope that the lawsuit and review would be resolved and the federal government would go back to paying three-quarters of the program. If not, lawmakers will have to vote while they gather in Boise during the legislative session on whether to approve additional funding for the broadband program.

Teresa Luna, director of the state Department of Administration, said she doesn’t expect to hear from USAC until August.

The legislative Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee is in Boise for the next three days for an interim meeting.