- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 17, 2015

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - Idaho budget writers have approved a nearly $3.6 million stopgap measure to maintain broadband access in public high schools for at least another four months, acknowledging that questions are still swirling around the troubled program’s long-term fate.

The Joint Finance Appropriations budget committee voted Tuesday to provide funding to Idaho’s Superintendent of Public Instruction’s office to reimburse schools for procuring their own broadband service throughout fiscal year 2015.

The vote marked a significant transition in who will oversee the state’s broadband program in the near future and how it will be implemented. Previously, the statewide broadband program was housed inside the Department of Administration.

However, a Feb. 11 court decision reaffirmed a prior ruling that the department violated Idaho’s procurement laws while finalizing the $60 million contract.

“It was a matter of confidence. … The decision really settled on who could best help school districts,” said Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, who co-chairs the state’s budget committee. “But I wouldn’t read too much into it for how it works in the long-term.”

The ruling has left lawmakers and education officials scrambling to find a way to maintain broadband access in Idaho schools. However, attempts to salvage a statewide program over the past few months have been blocked because state law prohibits spending taxpayer dollars on voided contracts.

Further adding to the broadband mess is the ultimatum presented by the broadband vendors. Unless they get paid for the past few months of service, CenturyLink and Education Networks of America say they will shut off service on Feb. 22.

After Tuesday’s decision, lawmakers agreed that it would be up to local school districts to negotiate their own broadband services and be reimbursed later for at least until the end of fiscal year 2016.

The money approved Tuesday will not be used to pay the vendors, said Paul Headlee, with the state’s independent Legislative Services Office.

Cameron added that Tuesday’s decision only applies to the end of the fiscal year. The committee will address a funding solution for the following fiscal year later during the legislative session - known as a bridge contract before the state finalizes a long-term permanent program.

“This is a clean slate in moving forward,” said Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome.

The program, known as the Idaho Education Network, or IEN, provides broadband access to more than 200 Idaho public high schools. It 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.

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