FLEMINGTON, NJ - Flemington-Raritan Regional School District (FRSD) students, who do not have Internet access at home to participate in virtual learning, will be receiving assistance as soon as board members feel they will can get the best telecommunications deal possible.
The Flemington-Raritan Regional Board of Education, after a more than 40-minute discussion at its Monday meeting, voted 5-4 in favor of tabling a $27,793.50 emergency purchase of jet packs and Internet service from Verizon Wireless that would have given at least 30 students during this coronavirus pandemic the Internet access at home they did not previously have to learn virtually.
The district does not traditionally provide Internet access to families at home, according to board president Tim Bart, who was the most vocal supporter of tabling the purchase because of the terms of the contract with Verizon.
Bart, along with board members Valerie Bart, Laurie Markowski, Susan Mitcheltree, and Christopher Walker, supported a motion to table the purchase. Vice president Jessica Abbott, along with board members Jeff Cain, Dr. Marianne Kenny, and Edward Morgan, voted against the postponement.
If the board does eventually approve the purchase, which received support from the executive county superintendent, the district will enter into a contract for a total of 50 jet packs and 12 months of service. The devices each cost $99.99, and the service is $39.99 per month per device.
Administration explained during the meeting that 50 jet packs is a loose estimate based on the district’s knowledge of students who have not been logging on to their school accounts at home, and the students who they know to be traveling to other households with Internet connection. The district does have the right to return any unused jet packs (boxed or unboxed) within 30 days of delivery, according to the administration.
Bart and other board members said they feel like this unexpected situation coming at the hands of the coronavirus pandemic is a short-term connectivity need, not one that should require the district to lock into a year-long solution, especially at this dollar figure. He advocated for the district to be more fiscally responsible during a time that he contended is a pending financial crisis, with looming cuts to their budget in the background.
“This feels like a price gouge, because of the duration of the contract,” Bart said. “If we only need Internet for 60 days for certain families, but we’re locking into a 12-month contract, that’s not a small amount of money.”
Bart urged administration, with the help of their county and state officials, to try and renegotiate the contract to fit the district’s current needs.
“When there’s gouging in a national emergency, or a hurricane situation, there are attorney generals in states who are employed to protect consumers,” Bart said. “The Flemington-Raritan Regional Board of Education is a consumer. I just feel that there isn’t enough emphasis being put on the fact that we would not be seeking this contract in this capacity if we didn’t have the current situation. I want to know why people aren’t advocating.”
District administration, who need board approval due to the emergency nature of the purchase relating to a federal contract, contested that the district’s technology team did evaluate multiple other options, and, after much research, decided this was the only way to go.
“While I recognize that Verizon has some districts by the corner of their coattails, this is the only option to be able to provide every student every opportunity to be able to connect and participate in our remote learning,” said Superintendent Dr. Kari McGann.
Other board members, like Abbott, said they trust the administration’s recommendation and don’t feel the need to micromanage during this situation when time is short.
“In the same way that it is our responsibility to provide buses for certain students to get to school, and to provide good paths to walk on and safe places to cross the street, it’s important for us to give access to our schools for all of our students, that’s a given,” Abbott said. “I completely agree with you (Tim Bart) that I think Verizon is behaving criminally, but I don’t believe that we have the time or the luxury right this minute to play with connectivity. I don’t think that is an appropriate gamble to make right now.”
For now though, as a result of this tabling, district officials will make an attempt at renegotiating as soon as possible.
Assistant superintendent Dan Bland said his belief is the district will have little leverage in conversations with Verizon, and a renegotiation of a better deal is “unlikely.”
This Verizon federal contract has been available for at least three years, he said, and the district has previously entered the same contract for “on and off needs” with these terms, which have remained the same and not changed to take advantage of the fact that more organizations are now seeking options for Internet access.
“Verizon told me two weeks ago that they sold a million units in one week (under this contract),” Bland said. “I think the chances are pretty slim. This is the federal contract every police department, fire department, rescue squad and school district, anyone who can purchase off the federal contract, these are the terms.”
“I just feel like we are getting rail-roaded by Verizon,” Bart said. “Because if that’s the federal contract they negotiated before the health crisis, then somebody needs to renegotiate. Business cannot run as usual just because we always ran it that way. It just upsets me.”
After the motion to table passed, the board discussed possibly holding an emergency virtual meeting, as allowed under one of the governor’s recent executive orders, at the end of this week to make a final decision to formally approve or deny the purchase, which may be revised.
The purchase order of these jet packs, which would not have been delivered until at least April 15, had already been placed prior to the board vote, McGann said, and now, the order will be cancelled.
“I don’t want these kids to continue to struggle with connectivity,” McGann said. “I recognize that it is $27,000, but I’ll also say that we are saving money because we spend $20,000 for subs every week.”
However, Valerie Bart supported trying to renegotiate a better deal, if there was a chance these could be spent elsewhere during this crisis.
“It’s going to take a lot people a lot of time to get back on track financially (during this crisis), and I’m just concerned,” she said. “That’s $27,000. I’ve actually heard constituents say to me, ‘Why this amount of money right now?’ You got some families worrying about food.”
Other board members supported Abbott’s position that this purchase needs to be made because of the pressing nature of the situation.
“I have grave concerns about the type of educational experiences these students will have without these jet packs,” Cain said. “I understand and appreciate the desire to attempt to renegotiate with Verizon. With my personal experience with renegotiations with telecommunications providers, I feel this is unlikely to be successful.”
He added that he would not be surprised if the district is confronted with needing to provide students with connectivity again in the future, and felt this most likely will not resemble a short-term need.
Administration did note some of the other options they are considering, prior to this recommendation. Comcast, starting March 16 when schools started closing, began offering two months of free Internet through its Internet Essentials program to economically disadvantaged families.
Bland said the technology team decided not to pursue this avenue because of “logistical hurdles” associated with the application, delivery and assembling.
The district also considered a “smart bus,” which would be parked outside of a facility and provide Internet access to nearby students, but that was deemed unworthy, because one of the problems was reaching particular neighborhoods, McGann said.