- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 1, 2016

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - The Idaho Supreme Court has upheld a lower court’s ruling voiding a statewide contract for broadband in public schools.

Under state law, the Department of Administration is now supposed to seek repayment from the broadband companies for the money already paid out under the $60 million contract for the Idaho Education Network. But in the ruling handed down Tuesday, the high court stopped short of ordering state officials to immediately seek repayment.

Rather, the justices said that if the appropriate state officer fails to seek repayment, the state’s chief legal officer could step forward to do the job.

Idaho Speaker of the House Scott Bedke declined to comment on the ruling. Senate Pro Tem Brent Hill said the state will have to go back to the drawing board on how to resolve the matter.

Idaho officials have been negotiating with the main vendors, Education Networks of America and Qwest, trying to come up with a fair dollar amount to cover the work the companies performed under the contract but that they weren’t yet paid for, Hill said.

“It’s not fair - everybody feels that way,” Hill said. “If we received in good faith services on a contract that people thought was valid … is there a dollar amount that is fair to everyone, where they can be reimbursed for their services, where the state can be held free from liability down the road, and where they can be held free from liability?”

Hill said the officials hoped to find a way to legally and ethically pay the contractors for their work, and that they will closely review the ruling to see if that’s possible.

In the unanimous ruling, Chief Justice Jim Jones wrote that the lower court was correct in finding the contracts void and in refusing to order the Department of Administration to demand repayment from the contractors who did the work under the voided contract.

But the high court also said that Syringa Networks - the company that sued over the contract alleging it was unfairly awarded and amended - was correct in contending that state law requires the state officials to seek that repayment.

Though the law requires the state to seek repayment, it doesn’t require the court to order it, Jones wrote.

“If the appropriate State officer fails to perform this statutory obligation, the State’s chief legal officer can step forward to make the State whole for these unfortunate violations of State law,” Jones wrote.

Millions are at stake for the companies, state taxpayers and the federal government. In its lawsuit, Syringa contended that because the contracts were voided the state was required to demand repayment of nearly $30 million that Idaho had already paid to the contractors who performed the work. It’s not yet clear if the federal government will seek repayment from Idaho for the roughly $14 million the Federal Communications Commission contributed toward the faulty contract. Meanwhile, Education Networks of America and Qwest continued to provide broadband services to state agencies and some schools, unpaid, while the matter worked through the courts.

Many school districts left the state contract and sought out broadband services on their own during the battle in the courts. Many of them found they were able to get the same service at much lower costs.

The high cost of the statewide deal was noted by the high court. “What were supposed to have been side-by-side, end-to-end competing contracts turned into a no-competitive blended arrangement that left State users with no lower cost choices,” Jones wrote.

Idaho Attorney General’s office spokesman Todd Dvorak said the state’s attorneys were still reviewing the ruling and could not yet comment. David Lombardi, the attorney representing Syringa Networks, said he was pleased by the high court’s ruling.

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