News Story

Michigan School District Helps Bankroll Private Wi-Fi Provider

Grosse Pointe also looking at closing schools; ‘Taxpayers were not asked’

The Grosse Pointe Public School System and private internet service provider Rocket Fiber are in the midst of developing a fiber-optic network to provide high-speed connectivity to district facilities, at a cost to district taxpayers of $2.1 million.

The school district is covering most of the cost. But the completed project will be mostly owned and operated by Detroit-based Rocket (or its successor; the company announced its acquisition by a national firm last month). In return 30% of the bandwidth will be dedicated, ostensibly at little to no additional cost, to district’s use for the next 15 years.

Rocket plans to open the network to commercial and residential customers along the route from Detroit to Macomb County. The deal was ratified by the school board in October, despite the collapse of an earlier proposal to develop the network in partnership with a consortium of municipal partners.

Superintendent Gary Niehaus promoted the development as a way to ramp up the district’s digital capacities and help schools with online learning, testing and communication.

Niehaus said in an interview March 12 the arrangement will let the district connect to the state’s broader K-12 and higher education networks at lower cost than would otherwise be possible. Having that ability, he said, was critical at a time when more educational opportunity is moving online.

“If we don’t have it, we’re not sure we would be able, with Comcast (the district’s current broadband provider) to deliver remote learning in situations like the Coronavirus,” Niehaus said.

But some taxpayers believe the deal is an unnecessary and expensive undertaking for a district that is facing economic headwinds and closing schools due to declining enrollment.

Kelly Boll, a retired teacher and resident of Grosse Pointe Park, said the deal with Rocket Fiber “has put the taxpayers at risk.”

“Taxpayers were not asked if they wanted to fund a speculative fiber venture,” she said. “Parents are concerned that we’re closing two elementary schools and building a network that might not save any money. The school system doesn’t have the expertise to run or market an IT system.”

One of the purported attractions of the deal is that the district could sell portions of its fiber network share to other customers, including local governments that backed out of the original operation.

But Boll said that argument ignores the fact that the district relies on a host of other utilities to operate, such as water, natural gas and waste disposal.

“Why doesn’t the school system start their own business in all these areas?” Boll asked.

Niehaus said those concerns are misplaced. The district’s contract with Rocket caps its costs at $2.1 million and protects against overruns, he said.

The district has paid about $500,000 of the total cost to date, Niehaus said, and the network is under construction along the Jefferson Avenue corridor. Work is scheduled to start in Grosse Pointe Woods within three weeks, he said.

A few aspects of the project remain unsettled, Niehaus said. An agreement with Macomb Community College, part of the plan to hook the district into the higher education network, is “still being reviewed,” he said. Also unfinished is an agreement with DTE to make the company’s utility poles available for Rocket’s fiber optic cable.

Boll said she is highly skeptical of the project’s long-term benefit to taxpayers or students, but considers it a mostly done deal. There is, she said, a community meeting on school issues at the Grosse Pointe War Memorial March 24 at which she expects the fiber project to be discussed.