Support appears lukewarm for Smart Schools Bond Act

On Board Online • November 3, 2014

By Cathy Woodruff
Senior Writer

New York voters soon will have their say on the Smart Schools Bond Act, which will appear on the statewide ballot Nov. 4 as Proposition 3. The proposal would authorize the state to borrow up to $2 billion for schools to buy electronic devices and equipment, expand broadband Internet access and build new classrooms to accommodate pre-kindergarten growth. The money could also be used for high-tech school security features or to replace classroom trailers.

The prospects for passage remain anybody's guess. While support for enhancing technology in schools - and the new educational connections and opportunities that could foster - remains hot, enthusiasm for the plan to fund such improvements with borrowed money has been closer to lukewarm.

"I've have not seen a lot of enthusiasm, nor have I seen a lot of negative concern," NYSSBA Executive Director Timothy G. Kremer told The Buffalo News. "I don't know why, but it just hasn't caught fire."

NYSSBA has taken no official position on the referendum. The state associations representing superintendents and principals have also taken no position, while New York State United Teachers supports passage.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed using statewide borrowing to pay for new school technology in his State of the State Address in January, and the Legislature approved it as part of the 2014-15 budget.

While NYSSBA's members generally say they would welcome opportunities to expand or upgrade their schools' educational technology, Kremer said, they also express concern about being saddled with related local costs, such as training or hiring staff to use and maintain the new devices, equipment and software. Other concerns include the restricted use of funding amid more urgent local needs.

"There are so many places where I can use the money to provide children direct instructional services, but they're willing at the state level to allow me to buy more bells and whistles," Yonkers Superintendent Michael Yazurlo told Bloomberg News.

According to the state budget legislation that authorized the ballot proposition, proceeds of the bond sale could be used:

  • To acquire equipment or facilities including, but not limited to, interactive whiteboards, computer servers and computers (desktops, laptops and tablets).
  • To install high-speed broadband or wireless internet connections for schools and communities.
  • To build, enhance and modernize buildings to accommodate pre-kindergartens and replace mobile "trailer" classrooms.
  • To install high-tech security equipment and systems.

The amount potentially available to districts, if they apply for the funding, is based on the current state aid formula.

According to the governor's office, each district's share would be "proportionate to the district's share of total formula-based school aid in the 2013-14 school year, excluding building aid, universal pre-kindergarten aid and the gap elimination adjustment."

The formula does not take into account any specific technology needs identified by districts or the likely actual costs.

District-by-district as well as county totals were listed on the school runs.

A county-by-county analysis of the projected bond act distributions by NYSSBA Senior Research Analyst Paul Heiser found that, on a per-student basis, Chenango County schools would receive the most, with $1,412 per pupil, followed by Allegany ($1,378) and Wyoming ($1,316).

Westchester County districts would receive the lowest per-pupil share of the distribution at $279, the analysis revealed. Other counties where schools would receive less than $600 per student are Rockland ($412), Nassau ($417), Putnam ($465) and Suffolk ($531).

The NYSSBA analysis also found that, on average, higher need (lower wealth) school districts would receive more funding per student: $1,434 per pupil for the Big 4 (Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Albany), $1,241 per pupil for high-need rural districts and $1,021 per student for high-need urban or suburban districts.

Within counties and need groups, the size of projected grants to individual districts varies widely.

A page on the governor's website devoted to information about the referendum offers a searchable database of estimated funding available to individual districts, based on that formula. Some sample allocations from around the state:

  • Buffalo, $56 million.
  • Lake Placid, $57,292.
  • Chazy, $378,806.
  • Shenendehowa, $3.9 million.

It is not clear how well the money available for individual districts would match their actual technological needs, especially as computers and high-speed internet access become increasingly essential for student coursework and in state and national testing.

Two non-profit groups that focus on public policy and finances in New York - the New York City-based Citizens Budget Commission and the Empire Center for Public Policy, a conservative-leaning think tank - are urging New Yorkers to vote against the proposition.

Analysts with both groups point out that the useful life of computers purchased with bond act money would likely fall years short of the duration of the bond payments. They also note that New York already has school aid categories that help fund local technology purchases and construction projects without triggering additional interest costs.

A commission appointed by the governor has held three public symposiums to hear from technology experts and educators about how schools already are using technology and what other uses could be beneficial. Cuomo's office describes the commission's mission as "advising the state on how to best enhance teaching and learning through technology" and recommending ways to "re-imagine New York's public schools for the 21st Century."

The commission is scheduled to issue a report this fall. Auburn Superintendent Constance serves on the commission with Geoffrey Canada of the Harlem Children's Zone and Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, who chairs the commission.

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