Group responds to School Board’s actions

Published 11:23 am Friday, July 16, 2010

WINDSOR – Three men who helped shape Connect Bertie have strong disagreements with the Bertie County Board of Education.

Earlier this week, the school board halted work on Connect Bertie saying it did not have a contract with Century Link to provide services. The board indicated via press release later in the week they had six major concerns with the contract they were presented.

Three men – David Peele, Ron Wesson and John Davis – who are part of a coalition known as Building Bridges, responded to the concerns by the school board in a press release Thursday.

The following is the context of that press release:

Board Statement: The members of the Bertie County Board of Education have been asked various questions in recent days regarding the Board’s position on the Connect Bertie project. The Board would like to make it clear that it is still willing to discuss the terms and conditions of a contract with CenturyLink that would allow internet service to be provided to families of students in Bertie County. However, the large majority of the terms of the contract currently proposed by CenturyLink are unacceptable to the Board. CentruyLink’s proposed contract is not fiscally prudent and would significantly reduce the very limited funds available for the education of students in Bertie County. Some of the Board’s concerns with CenturyLink’s proposed agreement follow:

Response: At the Board of Education’s February 2010 meeting retreat, the Board “approved the Connect Bertie project”. As a result, their executive (School Superintendent) negotiated the contract in agreement with the terms discussed and agreed to in that February meeting. The question of whether the Bertie BOE gave their executive approval to execute Connect Bertie is not one we can answer. However, the matter of whether the existing contract is fiscally prudent is a matter of opinion. At the time the contract was signed, the potential returns of the project must have been deemed acceptable, given the Board’s approval and the executive’s approval to go forward at the February meeting. We take issue with the statement that this project reduces funds available for education. It most certainly redirects existing funds to what we feel are better returns for our students. What the Board meant when they said they approved Connect Bertie in February will most likely be debated for years. Regardless, it is our opinion it will cost the county more to NOT do the contract now and we have a very high risk of losing all the benefits.

Board Statement: 1. The proposed agreement would obligate the Board to spend in excess of $2,250,000 over the next five years,

Response: The program as proposed would be paid from Stimulus Funds and from Title One Federal Funds which will be spent in some fashion or another over the next five years. Bertie’s Title One Funds alone grew from $1 million to $1.6 million (60%) from 2005 to 2009 and have grown consistently overall since the program started in the 1960s. The $20 monthly service fee (for internet service) will total $337,680 and would represent 21% of the $1.6 million in annual Title One Funds. The programs and use of Title One Funds have changed over the years and all the research tells us that the internet is the greatest learning equalizer for rural kids. This is just a better use of funds we already have. There will be no tax increase to Bertie citizen’s as a result of this program. By the way we will spend over $150 million dollars on education in the next five years so this project is 1.5% of that.

Board Statement: 2. The proposed agreement would require the Board to pay for internet service for 1407 families even if only a small fraction of the families are actually provided service.

Response: It is true that the school system will pay for 1407 users regardless of the number that actually sign up. Research in the county with the prospective customer base shows there is a very low risk that any families would not use the service. The upside is that high speed internet availability will more than double in the county and people who can afford to buy the service but have none available now will be able to receive service. This makes our county more attractive to businesses and people who want to move here. Paying for 1407 families is an acceptable risk in our opinion. Century Link is making a large investment and this project works because our invested funds help reduce the cost of expansion and provides private market potential for Century Link. Century Link and the school administration have carefully plotted the location of qualifying student households to ensure that the placement of new equipment will reach the majority of these families.

Board Statement: 3. The proposed agreement would require the Board to pay the monthly charges for any upgraded services requested by the families with the Board tasked with having to collect the money for the upgraded services from the families each month.

Response: This risk can be removed by saying there will be no upgrades through this program.

Board Statement: 4. The proposed agreement could not be terminated if the Board was not appropriated funds to pay the monthly charges.

Response: Over time Title One Funds have only increased. They increased 60% from 2005 to 2009. No companies we know of get off the hook on a contract they sign if their sales go down in a given year. They have to cut other expenses to meet their contractual obligations.

Board Statement: 5. The proposed agreement would require the Board to recover the modem from any family that stops accepting internet service and return the modem to CenturyLink at the Board’s expense.

Response: Modems for the 1407 homes are provided free. Anyone who gets a free modem when they sign up individually for home internet has this requirement. This is not unreasonable.

Board Statement: 6. The proposed agreement would require the Board to pay CenturyLink the retail cost for any modem used by a family that the Board does not return to CenturyLink.

Response: Modems for the 1407 homes are provided free. Anyone who gets a free modem when they sign up individually for home internet has this requirement. This is not unreasonable.