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The driver

idaho RANDY
The Idaho

Here’s the perceptive, precise and unexpectedly wonkish line that caught my eye in last week’s squabble over the long-term contract for Idaho’s school wi-fi system:

“Something doesn’t smell right to me. This is the problem when you let the budget drive policy instead of policy driving the budget.”

Let’s unpack what that bureaucratic-sounding quote, from state Representative Brent Crane of Nampa (in the Idaho Press-Tribune) meant in practice last week.

First, here’s what no one really seems to object to: Installing Internet wireless broadband access into Idaho schools. On Wednesday Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna signed a contract, with a private firm, to do that. To that extent, Luna seemed to be tracking with accepted policy, as well as with budget.

But there were issues.

One was that the contract was supposed to run for five years (at $2.11 million per year), and legislators, who operate state budgeting on a one-year-at-a-time basis, complained Luna had no authority to commit so far into the future – including, possibly, a successor in his office. (Two five-year re-ups also are contemplated but not locked in.) Criticism among legislators popped up around the state, and budget committee co-Chair Senator Dean Cameron was quoted as describing the deal as “perhaps borderline on a lack of honesty.” In the context, that’s fierce language.
Luna didn’t run the contract through the state purchasing office, which handles most substantial state contracts. He doesn’t have to do that, as a state elected official, but as Senate Education Chair John Goedde remarked, “It would have been cleaner.”

These items would seem minor, though, but for the third: The closeness between Luna, the contractor, and the personal and other linkages involved.

Three firms competed for the contract. The Tennessee-based winner, Education Networks of America, beat out two Idaho companies, one of which received the top review score among the three from an interviewing committee. (That top-ranking firm, Ednetics at Post Falls, is a fast-growing and evidently successful company with operations in the Seattle and Portland areas and experience in Internet connectivity in various schools around the Northwest.) Those two Idaho firms had no evident financial or personnel connection to Luna, but ENA did. It has been a substantial contributor to Luna’s campaigns ($6,000, reports the Spokesman-Review, from 2009 to 2012). The lead ENA employee in Idaho, Garry Lough, is a former employee of Luna’s.

Even all that may seem a minor point too except for the pattern of the many close connections Luna has had to the education industry. The contracting of various services to public schools has evolved into a big industry nationally. A February 2011 report in the Idaho Statesman said that Luna’s 2010 re-election campaign alone drew “$72,581 in contributions connected to for-profit education,” from firms such as K12 Inc., Apollo Group, Madison Education Group and Apangea Learning Inc.

When word about the contract got out early last week, voices around the state, some of them legislative, called on Luna to hold off. He did not delay signing.

What conclusions should we draw?

Here we get into matters of motivation, which only Luna can address. But the relevant points would seem to include ties closer to the national education industry than to many Idaho educators. To return to Crane, you get the sense that it wasn’t just the policy – putting broadband in schools – that drove the assignment and the process of this contract. As Luna contemplates what to say next about all this, and how he will answer the inevitable questions from legislators, which he will no doubt face at the next budget setting, that might be a good subject to consider.

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