March 28, 2017 03:15 PM

A plan to provide high-speed internet access to Louisiana's public school districts at no cost to them has died because local educators showed too little interest.

Louisiana's Board of Regents offered to make the upgrade happen for free for the school districts — but only 11 of the state's 69 districts signed up by last week's deadline.

The Advocate reports that Commissioner of Higher Education Joseph Rallo said that level of interest is "far below the critical mass needed to proceed with the initiative." So, the proposal has been scrapped.

Asked why local educators passed on a seemingly no-strings-attached offer, Rallo said: "I cannot answer the question."

State education leaders say they're stunned that local school districts passed on the offer.

"It looked like a slam-dunk to me," said Richard Lipsey, chairman of the Board of Regents.

The idea behind the plan was to have the public schools piggyback off a high-speed network used by colleges and universities, called the Louisiana Optical Network Initiative. It would have allowed high-speed internet capabilities to rural school districts that have limited access.

Regents officials said the offer involved leveraging the state's 10 percent match to obtain 90 percent in federal funding for an estimated $85 million in construction expenses.

Hollis Milton, president of the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents, said his West Feliciana Parish School District was one of the 11 that signed up, but he cited "the timeline and the amount of questions" as reasons the initiative didn't gain statewide traction.

Scott Richard, executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association, said part of the problem stemmed from poor communications and a short deadline set by Regents.

"As with any proposal of this magnitude, lack of detailed info and the level of uncertainty at the federal level regarding funding streams that local districts receive directly likely factored into apprehension," Richard said in an emailed statement.

Rallo said he met with Milton and members of the superintendents' organization in Alexandria in January and New Orleans in February to spell out details.

State Superintendent of Education John White said what local school districts were offered "was on a par with the system that colleges have today."

"This was going to be world-class cable that would allow speed in schools previously unheard of so that kids could process content at a rate faster than anything that most schools have ever imagined," White said.

Lipsey said the death of the plan is especially puzzling since some school districts, especially in northeast Louisiana, lack any kind of internet access.

"I just don't understand it," he said. "There was no hidden agenda."

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