PSJA Signs Huge Internet Deal With City Of Pharr

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Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD trustees Monday voted to approve a 10-year, $30 million inter-municipal agreement with the city of Pharr that the district said will provide broadband Internet service to more than 13,900 students .

When discussing the project on Monday, trustees estimated the total cost at $36 million, although interim superintendent Alejandro Elias told The Monitor on Tuesday that the cost will actually be $38 million, split equally Installments paid to the city over a 10-year period.

The cost is $50 per household per month, which Elias said will give more than 4,600 households in Pharr access to a 1 gigabyte-per-second Internet connection, for which the district will pay the city.

But that’s not all: The district is currently examining whether to significantly expand the internet service in the near future.

“We’re looking at the second phase for San Juan and the Alamo,” Elias said. “There are around 3,800 to 4,000 households there.”

It is not clear if this $50 price applies to homes in these cities. If so, the district could consider pouring well over $62 million into the project.

It’s hard to underestimate the magnitude of this investment.

School districts, counties and cities across the valley have invested heavily in bridging the digital divide in response to the pandemic, using millions of dollars to pay for electronic devices, hotspots and community access points for Wi-Fi.

PSJA’s $38 million investment eclipses most – if not all – of those investments.

Donna ISD, for example, received national attention for a Wi-Fi tower project that was touted as a solid solution to its students’ connectivity problems — though that project drew criticism in hindsight.

Overall, this particularly aggressive approach cost just $3.7 million.

Elias says setting a fee of $50 per household is a smart move, among other benefits.

“I see it as a savings,” he said. “If we didn’t have that contract in five years, what if it was $100 per household?”

The district began negotiations with the city over the service in December.

At the time, the city’s project was worth about $40 million; Developed over several years, it serves 24,000 residential customers and is said to have approximately 398 miles of fiber optic cable.

It’s a project the city is proud of.

“There is no question that this is truly a human investment that you are making,” Pharr Mayor Ambrosio Hernandez told trustees Monday.

In this April 2021 file photo, Pharr Mayor Ambrosio Hernandez speaks during a news conference announcing the city’s fiber optic broadband Internet network service. (Courtesy: City of Pharr/Facebook)

Calling pandemic efforts like hotspots a “drop in the ocean” in tackling the digital divide, Hernandez said the broadband program is an investment that will help the community for generations to come.

The trustees largely praised the arrangement. A couple of times, stories surfaced of students doing homework in restaurants or cafes because they didn’t have internet at home.

“We’re really dealing with students who sometimes hang out at Burger King or Starbucks trying to get wifi. Why put them through the stress?” Elias told the board. “When we offer all of these courses – as an early college, as CaTE – we want our students to be successful. So I don’t think there’s really a price to pay if the district can do what we can do for our at-risk students. And we can provide that service – I think that’s better than having a hotspot that’s really a burden on our students and parents.”

Board Chair Cynthia Gutierrez described it as a way to improve results for the district and a good recruiting tool.

“Students who reside in neighboring counties or who attend charter schools may want to come to our county to take advantage of this opportunity,” she said.

The county actually issued a press release on broadband, which also noted that enrollment was still open for next year.

The Zambrano brothers, who generally hold dissenting votes on the board, did not attend the meeting.

Trustee Jesus “Jesse” Vela expressed the greatest concern among trustees on Tuesday.

Because this is an unbudgeted expense, the first $3.6 million is expected to come from the district’s fund balance.

“You know, I get a little concerned when we take money out of our fund balance,” he said.

Elias said federal money from ESSER — the emergency relief fund for elementary and secondary schools — could offset at least some of those costs, which Vela also expressed concerns about.

“As long as we comply with the federal requirements of ESSER and the usage, because at the end of this year and next year, I’m afraid we’ll be under government scrutiny for being responsible for the ESSER funds,” he said.