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North Florida Broadband Authority: Stimulus funded 800 lb gorilla puts squeeze on financially strapped Bradford County Schools

BCSD officials
Bradford County School District Officials had a choice: spend thousands fighting the unlimited stimulus money of the NFBA, or spend their limited resources on education.

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BRADFORD COUNTY, FL – The saga of the North Florida Broadband Authority (NFBA), the Obama Stimulus funded broadband government consortium, which has squandered millions in cost overruns and falsely claims it is a public utility, was once 14 member counties strong. It has now dwindled down to seven (see map). After losing the trust of over half the elected public officials in its consortium, the NFBA is fighting back. Funded by the American People, the NFBA has taken on the financially strapped Bradford County School District.

The NFBA is ramping up to steal business from private sector Internet service providers to organizations eligible for the federal e-rate program. This program provides discounts to assist most schools and libraries in the United States (and U.S. territories) to obtain affordable telecommunications and Internet access. The NFBA is selling internet service at discounted rates that it got for free.

On or about March 1, 2013, both the NFBA and its primary business partner, SVIC (Suwannee Valley Internet & Computers) filed responses to a Bradford County School District Request for Proposals (RFP) with bids for Internet service and wide area network service (WAN).

The NFBA's partner, SVIC, was out of the running on both bids. SVIC used as a reference the Melody Christian Academy in Live Oak. The Academy claims 250 students. The Bradford County School District has over 3,500. They are not similar. Additionally, up and until the time that SVIC partnered with the NFBA, in May 2012, it "was not quite a one man operation."

Because of the continuing debacle at the NFBA, no front line wireless internet service provider, other than Mainstreet Broadband, has stepped up the plate to do business with the NFBA. Before Mainstreet Broadband ceased operations because it could not work out a deal to extend a $34 mil loan with RUS (Rural Utility Service), it was reported to have over 6,000 customers in Florida. With 6,000 customers, Mainstreet couldn't make it.

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The last time the NFBA released a monthly balance sheet to the NFBA Board was August 31, 2012. The numbers were so small they were barely discernible.

The NFBA recently claimed to have 60 Anchor Institutions (hospitals, schools, medical providers) included in a 600 customer base. It only has two customers of its own.

In March, it was reported by the NFBA's Director of Finance that NFBA revenues were $11,000. Its monthly expenses are estimated to be over $250,000. The NFBA's General Manager Richelle Sucara announced time and time again to anyone who would listen that by the end of the grant period on December 31, 2012, the NFBA would be self sustaining.

Bradford County School District (BCSD)

Dr. Steven Miller
BCSD's MIS Director, Dr. Stephen Miller

While it has been impossible to obtain the original BCSD's RFP's for both Internet and WAN services, it appears that responders needed to be able to demonstrate five years of similar experience servicing school districts.

Incredibly, the NFBA used as a reference the Bradford County School District, the same folks to which it submitted an RFP. It appears that unbeknown to the Bradford County School Board, Superintendent, and General Counsel, BCSD MIS Director, Steven Miller, had agreed to have a test circuit installed by the NFBA. This was also kept secret from the NFBA Board, even though NFBA Project Manager Donny Lort made numerous presentations to the NFBA before and while the test link was purportedly set up and running.

NFBA abandoned offices
The abandoned offices behind the for lease sign are what the NFBA claimed was their headquarters.

The bid proposal of the NFBA lists its address and headquarters as 164 NW Madison Street, Lake City, Florida. This proposal is dated March 1, 2013. It was executed by the NFBA's General Manager, Richelle Sucara, who has admitted to no private enterprise experience and whose only technological computer expertise was admittedly having hooked up a personal wireless router. Ms. Sucara supervises 4 NFBA employees and earns, with her benefits, over $200,000 a year.

By the end of January 2013, the NFBA had abandoned its headquarters at NW Madison Street. Employees work out of the trunks of their cars and from home. The NFBA has no office facilities; a barely functional phone system, which routes calls to employees that have been gone for months; and a phone message, that when accessed on weekends or after hours, only is one word – goodbye.

Bradford County Schools stuck with real companies that it knew

On March 12, 2013, during an emergency meeting, which appeared to be out of compliance with the Sunshine Laws, the BCSD awarded the bid for Internet services to Windstream, its current provider and a real company.

It also awarded its bid for a Wide Area Network to Trillion a real company with proven performance and a real headquarters. Trillion describes itself this way: Trillion is the largest national service provider of fixed wireless and fiber wide area networks for K-20 school districts in the country.

While it is not exactly clear what happened or why, BCSD's MIS Director Miller initially recommended awarding the contracts to the NFBA.

The BCSD, in the general conditions of the RFP, something well known to the NFBA and everyone who does business with public entities in Florida had in relevant part the following:  In the best interest of the Bradford County District Schools, the Board reserves the right to reject any and all proposals or any part of any proposal and to waive any irregularity in any proposal received...

The reputation of the NFBA made its way to the BCSB. They rejected the NFBA's bids.

The Bradford County School District is a poor district and like many rural school districts in the state, is very short on money.

The NFBA went after the BCSD, threatened and then protested their bid rejection.

It appears that rather than bear the costs of expensive litigation against the NFBA, which funds just about everything it does through Obama Stimulus money, the Bradford County School District agreed to the following:

No later than May 24, 2013, BCSD will provide a written statement to the NFBA, signed by the BCSD Superintendent, declaring that among other things, based on a 90 day test link, the BCSD believes the NFBA offers a workable alternative to school districts in north Florida in need of higher bandwidth Internet service.

The NFBA required that the statement be approved by the NFBA prior to it being signed by the BCSD Superintendent.

The BCSD also agreed that it would rebid the project no later than January 2014 and that the only bid specification the NFBA it would have to meet was that of price. All longevity and experience requirements would be waived for the NFBA.

On May 8, 2013, during the NFBA monthly meeting, Project Manager Donny Lort, during a discussion of the bid settlement details, told the NFBA:

 There's a lot of places we go. A lot of other bids that we asked for, they say -- you know -- can you give us a reference of where you delivered -- you know -- 50, 100 meg. With this letter we have a reference that says we delivered 200 Meg to the door. That does have value and I think in the end we're going in the right direction. And I think we will come out on top and we'll have a partner. And remember Bradford County speaks loud in school districts. They're part of the NEFAC Consortium. They speak loud and if we have Bradford County and Putnam County on our side it will go a long way with the other school districts.

          Pat O'Neil, Cedar Key's representative on the NFBA Board, and the NFBA's vice chair voted against the settlement. He said, "I want to kick their butt." 

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