Thousands of Tigers, Cajuns, Jaguars rally at Capitol to protest proposed cuts to Louisiana higher education _lowres

Louisiana Higher Education Commissioner Joe Rallo speaks to the crowd during a 2015 rally on the steps of the State Capitol to protest possible funding cuts to higher education systems in Louisiana.

Despite detailed assurances from top state officials, an offer to set up a no-cost, high-speed internet network for cash-strapped public schools across Louisiana died recently amid conflicting claims on the merits of the plan.

The state Board of Regents, with support from Gov. John Bel Edwards, made the offer to district superintendents and later provided point-by-point rebuttals to concerns raised by wary educators and their lawyers.

But in the end, only 12 of Louisiana's 69 district superintendents signed up, killing what backers called a onetime opportunity to expand students' and teachers' access to a wide range of educational opportunities. The state offered to connect public schools with the computer network that links universities, which also would have extended high-speed internet to schools in rural areas of Louisiana with little access.

Officials in some of the districts that accepted the offer were disappointed to learn they will never see the cost savings, and improved internet access, they sought.

Kevin George, superintendent of the St. John the Baptist Parish School District, said his technology specialists studied the Board of Regents' offer.

"We were totally satisfied," George said. "We thought it was a win-win."

Superintendents in 11 other districts applied too, including leaders of the school systems in Orleans, West Baton Rouge, Livingston and Tangipahoa parishes.

However, Commissioner of Higher Education Joseph Rallo pulled the plug on the offer in a March 27 letter, despite repeated attempts by him and others to plead their case.

Rallo wrote that, due to the superintendents' apparent lack of interest, "the proposal is no longer viable." The deadline to apply for the funds was March 23.

While state leaders were shocked at the lack of interest, some superintendents bristled at the notion that they missed the boat.

Hollis Milton, president of the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents, said a legal opinion that recommended superintendents steer clear of the plan carried weight.

"I think that is why the superintendents were hesitant," said Milton, who is superintendent of the West Feliciana Parish school district, which applied for the offer.

Scott Richard, executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association, also disputed the view that superintendents let a golden opportunity slip away. "It's not quite manna from heaven," Richard said, referring to the comment of a state senator who called the offer just that.

What the Board of Regents offered was to pave the way for the building of a high-quality fiber network. It would do so through a collective application for federal discounts available to school districts and libraries — called e-rates — through a program overseen by the Federal Communications Commission.

The state would then use the existing Louisiana Optical Network Initiative, which is a computer network that connects public and private universities to each other and allows them to conduct research online. The Louisiana Optical Network Initiative is run by the Board of Regents. The proposal was to connect fiber points in each school system, linking them to the network to offer a wide array of educational services.

Federal rules encourage collective applications using a consortium framework, officials said.

Backers thought the idea would be well-received, especially because many public schools lack affordable or high-speed internet access. The network would cost about $85 million — 90 percent coming from federal dollars and 10 percent coming from the state.

"There is no cost to you for constructing the network," Lonnie Leger, executive director of the Louisiana Optical Network Initiative, said in a Feb. 10 email to Milton for superintendents statewide. Leger also said the initial application was not a final commitment by school districts and that local officials would retain ownership and management of their network.

However, skepticism about the merits of the offer was evident when Rallo and others made presentations to the superintendents Feb. 9 at a New Orleans hotel. Rallo said that, when he first discussed the proposal with educators in Alexandria in January, it was highly well-received.

"The second meeting was not as reassuring," he said of the New Orleans gathering.

One official said that, before Rallo spoke, Richard and others made comments that tossed cold water on the Board of Regents' offer.

Untrue, Richard said. "I was running my own conference at that time," he said.

What did essentially kill the deal for most superintendents was a sharp critique of the plan a few weeks later by a Baton Rouge-based law firm. It concluded that superintendents should reject the offer.

"Due to the lack of information, it is our recommendation that the agreement not be executed," according a three-page letter from the Hammonds, Sills, Adkins & Guice law firm.

The letter questioned the value of assurances offered by the Board of Regents; said accepting the offer could prohibit districts from filing future e-rate requests with the FCC; and once the network was up and running, the state could charge local districts whatever it wanted.

It also questioned the state's pledge to put up 10 percent of the construction costs, citing possible problems if districts backed out later and questioned whether subscription fees would be based on usage.

One week later, the Board of Regents, with assistance from Louisiana Optical Network Initiative officials, replied with a rebuttal to each concern. They offered to bind the state to the plan, said it would not keep districts from future e-rate applications and disputed claims of any excessive charges in the offing. It said the state's pledge to finance 10 percent of the construction costs was solid, downplayed concerns about possible problems for districts that opted out later and said subscription fees would not be based on usage.

School districts also were given seven other pledges, including that money to construct the network would not come out of annual state aid for public schools.

But the initial legal advice to reject the Board of Regents' offer, including a followup rebuttal to the rebuttal, sealed the deal.

"The Board of Regents still can't answer many of the questions raised," Richard said.

Officials in the St. Mary school district, one of the dozen that applied for the offer, said they saw but decided to ignore the law firm's recommendation not to pursue the plan. Kevin Derise, chief technology officer for the district, noted that the initial signup did not represent a final commitment by school districts.

"To me, this was a worthy enough venture to at least see if you could go a little further," Derise said. "We just wanted to jump on board."

Wesley Watts, superintendent of the West Baton Rouge Parish school district, said officials of his system applied but that it was a close call.

"I can tell you we went back and forth on whether to sign that consortium or not," Watts said. "It was scary. We were up to the last minute."

The death of the regents' plan marks the second time a major internet expansion for Louisiana schools has died. The first time was under former Gov. Bobby Jindal in 2011.

Edwards liked the idea enough for the state to put up 10 percent of the cost, about $8 million, at a time when it faces another major budget shortfall.

In a statement, the governor said he is committed to finding funds for the internet upgrade, especially in rural areas. "It's unfortunate that the communication between the Board of Regents and local superintendents did not result in an agreement concerning the proposal to enhance internet access to districts across the state," he said.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.