Higher education bills are in the home stretch; legislation to slim TOPS costs on deck _lowres

Joseph Rallo, the commissioner of higher education.

In a move that stunned state education leaders, a plan to provide high speed internet access to school districts statewide has died because of a lack of interest from local educators, officials said Monday.

The state Board of Regents offered to make the upgrade happen, at no cost to districts, through the Louisiana Optical Network Initiative.

However, only 11 of the state's 69 school districts signed up by the March 23 deadline.

Commissioner of Higher Education Joseph Rallo, in a letter, said that level of support "is far below the critical mass needed to proceed with the initiative."

"Due to the school districts' apparent lack of interest, BoR (Board of Regents) has determined that the proposal is no longer valid," Rallo said.

In an interview, Rallo was asked why local educators passed on a seemingly no-strings-attached offer. "I cannot answer the question," he said.

The idea behind the plan was this: the state already has a network — LONI — used by colleges and universities. The regents offered to use it as a consortium applicant on behalf of any school district that sought the "e-rate" discounts. The reduced cost is meant for schools and libraries. It would have allowed high-speed internet capabilities to rural school districts that have limited access.

Richard Lipsey, who lives in Baton Rouge and is chairman of the Board of Regents, said he, too, is baffled.

"It looked like a slam-dunk to me," Lipsey said. 

Rallo's letter was sent to Hollis Milton, president of the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents.

Milton, who is superintendent of the West Feliciana Parish School District, said his district was one of the 11 that signed up.

"As superintendent in West Feliciana, I saw the benefit of the partnership," Milton said in an email. "However, the timeline and the amount of questions regarding e-rate played against the initiative gaining traction statewide."

Scott Richard, executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association, said part of the problem stemmed from poor communications.

"As with any proposal of this magnitude, lack of detailed info and the level of uncertainity at the federal level regarding funding streams that local districts receive directly likely factored into apprehension," Richard said in an emailed statement.

"Also, a short deadline by the Board of Regents requesting a definitive level of commitment from districts also likely caused districts to pause," he said. 

"Hopefully, the initiative can be revisited with better communications among stakeholders."

The Louisiana School Boards Association was involved in presentations on the regents' plan.

School systems face a freeze in basic state aid for public schools for the 2017-18 school year, a recurring theme amid state budget problems.

Top stories in Baton Rouge in your inbox

Twice daily we'll send you the day's biggest headlines. Sign up today.

However, Regents officials said the offer carried no financial obligations for local school districts. The regents' goal was to build a statewide, K-12 network that school districts would own.

It could become reality, they said, by leveraging the state's 10 percent match to obtain 90 percent in federal funding for construction expenses.

The entire project carried a pricetag of about $85 million.

Rallo noted that he met with Milton and members of the superintendents' organization in Alexandria in January and New Orleans in February to spell out details.

"Further, we have had numerous, lengthy correspondence to address any concerns raised by school districts," Rallo said in his letter. "Notwithstanding these efforts, we do not have the requisite level of participation to go forward at this time."

State Superintendent of Education John White, who attended the meeting in Alexandria, said what local school districts were offered "was on a par with the system that colleges have today."

"This was the broadband highway," White said. "This was going to be world-class cable that would allow speed in schools previously unheard of so that kids could process content at a rate faster than anything that most schools have ever imagined."

How to finance similar efforts has sparked controversy for years.

The initial work involves putting down miles of fiber optic cable needed for broadband internet services.

A push to do so in rural areas, through a federal grant, died in 2011 amid opposition from then-Gov. Bobby Jindal.

White noted that, unlike the earlier episode, this one was backed by Gov. John Bel Edwards.

"Given the governor's support, given what happened in the last administration, it is very disappointing that people would walk away from it," White said.

The Governor's Office declined comment.

Lipsey said the death of the plan is especially puzzling since some school districts, especially in northeast Louisiana, lack any kind of internet access.

"I just don't understand it," he said. "There was no hidden agenda."

State Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, former chairman of the Senate Education Committee, has pushed the issue of internet access in schools for years.

Appel, now a rank-and-file member of the committee, called the regents' officer "manna from heaven."

"To me it is unfathomable," Appel said of the lack of interest. "It's insanity. I don't get it."

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.