- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 21, 2015

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - More questions than answers hang around Idaho lawmakers as they grapple over the now-defunct statewide school broadband Internet access program.

A legislative interim committee met Tuesday to begin determining whether the Idaho Legislature should attempt building a new statewide broadband program.

School officials have repeatedly said they view providing broadband access as just as crucial as providing electricity or running water. However, lawmakers are still deciding the extent of the state’s involvement in any future efforts to deliver broadband Internet access.

“I think the state has to have some sort of role,” said state Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint. “I think it’s critical that the state is involved in maintaining infrastructure. But no, I’m not ready yet to say what’s the right path.”

Idaho’s broadband program dissolved earlier this year after a district judge ruled the $60 million contract that created the system was illegal. The system had been operating since 2010, but it faced legal and financial trouble after it was hit with a lawsuit from a rejected vendor. Once the ruling was announced, individual school districts were left scrambling in February to secure their own broadband-access contracts, which would later be reimbursed by the state.

So far, school districts have been successful in maintaining costs much lower compared with the statewide program without facing a disruption in any of the services. In just four months of reimbursing the individual contracts, schools came in $1.3 million cheaper than the anticipated $3.6 million in costs -meaning that money will be reverted back to the state.

“The short answer is it was cheaper. It cost less money to go directly to the districts, but I don’t know if you were purchasing the same things,” said Robyn Lockett, a legislative budget analyst.

School officials who spoke on Tuesday pleaded with lawmakers to keep the program cheap and access high.

“We must have funding for broadband access,” said Alan Dunn, superintendent of the rural Sugar-Salem school district in eastern Idaho. “There’s no way to go back to blackboards and whiteboards for us. There has been too big of a dramatic shift.”

His district has almost no means to raise money because his region lacks any major businesses and contains the second-lowest property values, Dunn said. But because of the broadband service, the district has been able to develop its own digital textbooks, allow teachers to teach remotely via Skype and move all student testing online, he said.

One recommendation offered Tuesday would be to create a state-based service agency that would be in charge of technical and bidding support for school districts as well as the funding for broadband.

“We are not encouraging a return to a managed statewide network,” said Will Goodman, president of the Idaho Education Technology Association. “Every district is unique. Every district has strengths and weaknesses, and having a service agency would help work out those weaknesses.”

No decisions were made at the all-day meeting in Boise. Instead, lawmakers will gather several more times over the summer before coming up with a final recommendation.

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