April 29, 2020 — The Siuslaw School District is discussing the possibility of bringing fiber internet to its students at a discounted rate for the next five years through a partnership with local internet service provider Hyak. The project was proposed during last Wednesday’s school board meeting by Hyak co-owner Robbie Wright, along with School Board Chair Guy Rosinbaum and Superintendent Andrew Grzeskowiak.
The potential deal would include a $1.4 million investment by the district to Hyak, which would use the funds to install 40,000 feet of gigabit fiber optics in specific areas throughout the Siuslaw School District.
In return, the district would receive a five-year contract where all students in the reduced lunch program would receive free internet access, while the remaining students would receive a 25 percent discount. The deal would also include a waiver of any maintenance fees, totaling almost $1 million.
The project, which could be completed by September, could potentially bring fiber internet to hundreds of residents within four key areas, and could jumpstart the region’s upgrade to fiber internet.
In addition, the deal could help the district with future social distancing orders due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The district’s schools, which are already feeling the effects of overcrowding, could better institute possible continued social distancing regulations by splitting school between distance education and in-school instruction.
A final component of the deal could also create more equity for students as the district begins to shift more resources online.
But questions remain, including whether or not the Siuslaw School District is financially capable of entering into such an agreement, and whether or not the economic downturn of the state could put the financial futures of all state schools in jeopardy.
Grzeskowiak began the discussion during the school board’s teleconference by giving details on how distance learning was working for the district. For the past two weeks, the school has been holding online classes after the state closed in-person classes for the rest of the school year.
The majority of the elementary school, between 70 and 75 percent, were participating in the digital platform, though one grade stood at 60 percent.
“There’s a larger number of elementary kids whose parents have elected to go with the paper equivalent for the district’s learning packet,” Grzeskowiak reported. “We’ve had them returned and are sorting them out, but we don’t have a hard count on that.”
Middle school was seeing higher participation with digital, with grades logging on in the mid-80 percentile. Around 12 percent of students were using paper options.
High school has seen the largest online participation rates, with 95 percent of students checking in at least twice a week. Five percent of students (18 in total) requested paper options.
However, there have been a few students who have not been in contact with the school since the shutdown began.
“We need to know if they’re in town or out of town,” Grzeskowiak said. “Are they in town but occupied with family commitments? I know some of our kids are watching siblings, some that had part time jobs are now the primary breadwinner for the household. They’re lacking some sort of access or are missing contact calls.”
District staff has begun knocking on doors to track down the status of these few remaining students.
“This brings us into the next part of our contact in distance learning, which is internet access,” Grzeskowiak said. “Staff has called all the families at least twice, and some of them four times. After our initial survey of the district, we had 119 students, over 94 households, who said they did not have access to the internet.”
However, there was some confusion on what “access to the internet” actually meant.
“Some kids log on at work, and we didn’t have any contact with them the first rounds of calls. So they have access,” Grzeskowiak said. “After the follow up contact, that list went down to 79 students and 69 households.”
The district has already begun offering to subsidize the internet for these households on a short-term basis, using funding from the CARES act to ensure students had access to internet in their homes.
But in the long term, Grzeskowiak said, “We do have those kids that have financial hardships we’re going to need to look at if we’re going to talk about distance learning, or even regular learning, and having equitable access for all kids.”
The discussion then turned to Wright, who spoke about the company and the proposal.
“The last couple of years, we kicked off the fiber to the home project,” said Wright, describing how Hyak had already begun laying fiber optics and providing internet for the Pacific View Business Park on Kingwood Street. Hyak has also begun to buy property in the city to act as hubs, bringing fiber optics to homes.
“We’re just finishing Park Village now and running down Kingwood Street, down toward Dairy Queen,” Wright said. “We’re obviously a local company. (Co-owner) Neil Ecker went to high school here, my wife went to high school here. I’ve been pretty involved in the community for a while.”
Hyak and the school district studied the landscape of where fiber existed, and where students in need were.
“Where our main fiber area exists today, it’s pretty central to the city,” Wright said. “We looked at ways of easily trying to get to other high-density areas of the city that had a … high percentage of students. For instance, we’re probably not going to try and do service in Fawn Ridge, where there might only be a handful of students.”
But Hyak and the district were able to locate four areas they identified as “critical areas” immediately around the school district.
“It’s all within a mile of neighborhoods that have high density of students. That might be on the lower income scale or have a little bit less of an ability to afford internet,” Wright said.
One area would run most of the length of Oak Street, from the elementary school up to the Siuslaw Dunes apartments by Les Schwab.
“There’s quite a few kids up there,” Wright said.
The next section encompasses Siano Loop, Skookum Drive, and a few other streets just north of the business park.
“Right up here, you have about 190 homes, with 31 of those homes containing students,” Wright said.
Apartment complexes such as Siuslaw Dunes and Oak Terrace would be connected, as well as a large area around Nopal and 13th, “which includes some of the other subsidized housing,” Wright said.
However, there are areas that cannot get fiber.
“They’re way out in Ada or up in Tiernan, and they just don’t have access to it,” Wright said.
Installation of any non-satellite internet to individual homes runs into the thousands, but grant funding is limited.
“There is funding for outlying areas that are extremely challenging to get to,” Wright said. “They just kicked off the Rural Opportunity Fund, which is going to start coming together in October of this year. That is something we are going to be working with another nonprofit to see if there’s other opportunities for that in places way out in the North Fork, way out on the East side of Siltcoos, and some other pretty challenging places. Unfortunately, things like this don’t have a lot of grant opportunities.”
According to Grzeskowiak, “Rural broadband stalled in the state legislature two years ago and hasn’t picked up again. How that gets managed, I don’t know yet. There isn’t even a special session for the legislature schedule.”
The cost of the project would be around $1.4 million dollars.
“This represents about 40,000 feet of installation,” Wright said.
To help cover the costs, Siuslaw School District would front Hyak that $1.4 million amount out of the district’s reserve of $3.8 million. In return, the district would get a five-year deal with Hyak to give students free or reduced internet access.
“If you’re in the free and reduced lunch program, you are eligible for 100 percent free internet,” Wright said of the proposal. “If you do not have a student in that program, you’re eligible for a 25 percent discount on any of the fiber internet that’s in these particular areas.”
Once the actual fiber is installed, Hyak would also be able to offer its service to homes in the area, regardless of whether or not they have children.
Hyak would also be waiving maintenance fees for the district, totaling an estimated $900,000.
“While fiber is really expensive to construct, it is also a moderately expensive thing to maintain,” Wright said. “That’s one of the things we’re effectively donating to the cause.”
If Hyak began installing the fiber now, it could be ready for the next school year, starting in September.
“The school district is not going into the internet business. We’re not going to be putting things in the ground,” Rosinbaum said. “What we’re doing is guaranteeing five years of connectivity for a number of students, however we choose to do it.”
COVID and equity
There were two main justifications for the proposal between Hyak and Siuslaw School District, the first of which being the growing importance of online information.
“With so many teachers jumping in and getting on board with distance learning and using some of the technology that’s been introduced the prior years, I think people realize that these classrooms are a great tool to be able to organize and have a ready database for parents and kids for resources — materials and lesson notes,” Grzeskowiak said. “They can go to at any time, whether we’re distance learning or we’re back at the regular campus.”
Students and teachers rely on email for communication, and studies have shown that access to online databases helps students succeed.
“If we’re talking about the greatest equitable access, how we provide good, quality internet [is important],” Grzeskowiak said.
The other justification for the deal was to prepare for a “new normal” in the era of pandemic.
For Rosinbaum, “The question I had to ask myself, and what brought this about, is what does this look like next year, and a year after that. I don’t know where everybody sits on the science of the virus. I personally don’t think this is going anywhere anytime soon. Even if we had a vaccine last month, we would be looking at a year of manufacturing time before we could cover the United States. And that doesn’t include the rest of the world.”
But how the district could handle social distancing is unknown, as the school is already facing an overcrowding problem.
“We’ve been asking our community for years, since I’ve been on the board, for a new high school,” Rosinbaum said. “One of the major reasons we wanted a new high school is we’re getting crowded.”
One of the ways to overcome this is to have staggered schedules, with students coming into the school only part of the time, but also doing distance learning. While Rosinbaum expected some funding from the state, it wouldn’t come until the state began to seriously look at reopening the schools.
The issue is complicated further with the job losses in the state. If the economic outlook worsens, families without employment could begin to cut internet services from their home to save money.
“Internet is going to be the first things people give up,” Rosinbaum said. “They’re going to feed themselves, keep the power on and make a house payment long before they’re going to keep their internet connection.”
However, to get the fiber internet to the students by next September, Hyak would have to begin working now.
“I really want to stress that if we’re going to do this and have it ready for September, we’re going to need to make a decision pretty soon,” Rosinbaum said.
District Business Manager Kari Blake questioned the financial prudence of dipping into the district’s $3.8 million reserve.
“‘I’d love to say we have lots of extra money, but I think the beauty of having those reserves is times like these, when we can sustain while not knowing our future,” she said.
Blake pointed out that the state was already predicting budget shortfalls.
More than 90 percent of the state’s general fund comes from only two sources, personal and corporate income taxes. But with mass unemployment, taxes have slowed while unemployment benefits have gone up. The state’s next revenue forecast, which is due in May, will give a more precise picture of the economic impacts of the shutdown.
“We don’t know about funds coming from the state level,” Blake said. “With a 3.8 million reserve, we can dip into that but then we’re back to square one. $1.4 million equals about 14 teachers for our district. Not knowing what’s happening right now, I would feel a little uncomfortable putting that money out, knowing that later we may have to lay off teachers for that decision. … For me, it seems premature to dip that much out of our funds without looking at all options.”
Blake also questioned whether or not fiber was the only internet available.
“I get the internet here in town for a monthly service, so I don’t understand what the infrastructure is necessarily for,” she said. “Are you saying that’s the only way we can get these kids on the internet?”
Wright replied that most places within the district do have numerous options for internet.
“It could be Charter, Centurylink, Oregon Fast Net, lots of different ways to get the internet today,” he said. “How the district deploys their funds could be used in numerous ways, and just simply subsidize them for that.”
The difference, Wright explained, was that fiber optics themselves could be upgraded over time that can benefit multiple technologies.
“It’s an enabler, I guess you can look at it like that,” he said. “The technology is dramatically different and significantly more future proof. Some of the things you can do on fiber, you can’t do on Centurylink.”
During the discussion, Siuslaw School Board Member Paul Burns asked if the City of Florence would be willing to partner on the project.
Wright stated that Hyak has worked closely with the city, stating, “Frankly, we couldn’t do half the stuff we do without them. It’s been a pretty good experience so far.”
But currently, the city would not be financially able to help on the project.
There were also concerns as to whether or not going online would lead to students dropping out, as they migrate to more established online schools.
“My take is, Andy can’t predict the future, and I sure can’t. I’m open to the fact that I could be completely wrong,” Rosinbaum said. “We are in a unique position. We are a school district with a lot of extra money and no red tape that stops us from doing something like this. So now we have to decide whether or not it’s the right idea, or a good idea. And I don’t have the right answers. I’m going to defer to the board’s wisdom on that.”
No final decision was made on the proposal by the board. The next meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, May 13.
For more information on Hyak and its services, visit hyak.co.
Siuslaw School District is online at siuslaw.k12.or.us.