Failure of mediation between the Idaho Department of Administration and Syringa Networks regarding the development of the Idaho Education Network (IEN) could mean that the Idaho Legislature may not be able to adjourn as planned by next Friday.
One of the few remaining tasks for the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee (JFAC) was to provide $3 million in spending authority for the IEN based on a two-year grant from the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson education foundation. The budget for the IEN was supposed to be set a week ago, but was held off at the request of Legislative leadership until mediation was held yesterday in an attempt to settle the Syringa lawsuit.
“It concluded last evening around 8:00 without success,” said Ken McClure, of Givens-Pursley, legal counsel for Syringa.
Syringa Networks, which almost a year ago was awarded a portion of the contract for developing the statewide broadband Idaho Education Network, filed suit in December against the state of Idaho and Director of Administration Mike Gwartney, among others, claiming not only that its superior bid was rejected but that it is being shut out even of the portion of the contract it was awarded—including other contracts it had separately with other parts of Idaho state government.
The Department of Administration did not respond to requests by press time, but Teresa Luna, chief of staff for the Department of Administration — which is administering the project for the Department of Education, headed by Luna’s brother Tom Luna, superintendent of public instruction — had said in a previous email message that it was false that Syringa had been awarded the contract. “Syringa was not awarded the contract – ENA and Qwest were awarded the contract to provide IEN services,” she said. “In ENA’s proposal (offer) to the State, Syringa is listed as a partner-provider for ENA (i.e., a subcontractor), as was IRON, Cable One, Time Warner, Century Tel, Qwest Wholesale, and Verizon.”
It is true that the contract on the Department of Administration website lists ENA as the recipient of the contract. However, the ENA proposal was jointly submitted by ENA and Syringa, with logos from each company prominently displayed on each page of the proposal. Moreover, early state documents, as well as the first articles when the contract was awarded, cite Syringa’s role in the project.
In fact, the state’s Draft IEN Strategic Plan includes a Vendor Support Matrix, listing roles for Qwest, ENA, and Syringa, in the version dated Feb. 3 — after the awarding of the contract — with the Syringa column completely removed in a later Feb. 5 version.
In addition, regional Internet service providers (ISPs) that are already providing Internet service to schools contend that the initial plan was to have them provide the “last mile” connection between the backbone network and the schools, and have complained to their legislators that, instead, Qwest was building new connections that would cut them out of the process, claiming their ability to provide infrastructure or services were inadequate. There were so many bipartisan, bicameral legislative questions that Senate Education Committee chairman Senator John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, held an informal joint hearing of both the Senate and House Education Committees to let the ISPs raise their concerns.
Lending credence to their argument, as well as to Syringa’s, is a Jan. 31, 2009, document called What is the Idaho Education Network? that says, “ENA will assist the state to ensure the proper administration of E-Rate funds; provide the overall network management, monitoring and support; and will utilize the backbone network and extensive coverage of Qwest and Syringa Networks, as well as many other carriers across the state… they are an experienced education-focused managed Internet network service provider team that can leverage existing state infrastructure and contracts with multiple telecommunications, cable and utility providers to provide a ubiquitous statewide education network with a high-level of quality support services.”
Adding to the controversy, Division of Financial Management director Wayne Hammon emailed several members of JFAC — though not the chairs — in an exchange that Cameron called “inappropriate, incorrect, and unacceptable.” According to copies of the email messages published by the Spokesman-Review, Hammon warned JFAC members against not approving the IEN funding. “If necessary, we talk more (in person and off-line)[sic] about what might happen if IEN is not approved this Friday,” his email read. (He has since apologized.)
Consequently, to provide the IEN spending authority, JFAC would need to meet and decide what to do, and then move the bill — assuming they pass one — through both houses, where many legislators are concerned about the process. Cameron did not respond to inquiries by press time, but could the process even be completed in a week? Or will an interim committee be formed to examine the issue?
Full disclosure: Sharon Fisher is a candidate for the Idaho Legislature, District 21.