New York State’s school bond act draws a muted reaction

| The Buffalo News

ALBANY – What if someone came calling with a $2 billion gift and the intended recipient was ho-hum about taking it?

That’s the reaction the Smart Schools bond act, which is on the Nov. 4 statewide ballot, is getting in many educational circles.

Officials in many parts of the education community say they didn’t propose the money and didn’t ask for its passage in the State Legislature this year, but will likely be happy to take the cash if voters approve the big borrowing – so long as there are none of the usual Albany strings attached.

The $2 billion bond act caught the education community by surprise when Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo proposed it last January in his State of the State address. It found its way into the larger state budget and now will appear on ballot boxes across the state in a couple of weeks for voters to consider.

Proponents characterize the borrowing as a way to give schools a technology jolt, allowing classrooms that aren’t wired with broadband to get access to high-speed Internet services, giving students new desktops, laptops and other devices and helping teachers incorporate cutting-edge technologies.

Proceeds of the bond also can be used to fund classroom construction or renovation to make way for new prekindergarten classes, a provision in the plan which critics say would mean New York City would eat up much of the funding; $783 million is destined for New York City.

Bond proceeds can also be used to replace classroom trailers with new classrooms in a building.

The Cuomo administration has already floated, and put into the 2014 budget contingent upon the ballot item passing, district-by-district allotments for the funds. The allotments were based, in large part, on the school aid formula – used in the 2013-14 school year – that drives state aid to districts.

For Buffalo, it would mean up to $56 million could flow in the coming years for new computers, wireless Internet upgrades, pre-K classroom space, and high-tech school security measures. Other potential amounts locally include Kenmore-Tonawanda at $5 million, Lackawanna at $2.9 million, West Seneca at $4.2 million, Niagara Falls at $8.9 million. New York City schools would be eligible for $783 million.

The proposal worries some fiscal watchdogs. Some wonder how wise it is to add more borrowing by a state that is second in the nation in debt load. New Yorkers already shell out more than $6 billion a year paying the interest and principal of past state government borrowings.

Moreover, these critics wonder how it can make sense to enter into a long-term borrowing plan to pay for items such as laptops and tablets with notoriously short lifespans.

If New York is to borrow, they say, then borrow to spend on projects with a high need and that will last far longer, such fixing New York’s crumbling roads and bridges.

On the positive side, this is as front-door as one gets in Albany: it asks voters, instead of having some state authority run a bond sale, if New York should have the right to borrow $2 billion. The school bond act is the first general obligation bond plan to go before voters since 2005, when a $2.9 billion transportation borrowing was approved, according to State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli.

While he has not made much of a major public push for the bond act since it was approved by the Legislature in March, Cuomo does include a brief mention of the measure in one of his new TV ads. He was asked about it recently by a reporter and said he supports it, though he did not elaborate.

“Let’s invest in the future. Let’s reimagine our classrooms for the next generation,” Cuomo said in his January State of the State address.

There are plenty of national studies showing that technological advances brought into the classroom can help with student growth and performance. But critics of the bond act say Cuomo made his $2 billion proposal without New York fully knowing the current state of classroom technology in its 700 public school districts. How many schools, for instance, have broadband, or already have enough computers or software that could require a whole new round of training for teachers to bring them up to speed on the new technology?

Besides Cuomo and lawmakers who approved the measure, the ballot proposal has not yet gathered a vocal line-up of supporters. The New York State United Teachers union plans to inform its 800,000 members that it backs the bond act’s passage.

“It would help high-needs school districts to purchase education technology, such as interactive whiteboards and laptop computers, while expanding access in those communities to high-speed broadband and wireless Internet,” said NYSUT spokesman Carl Korn.

But the group that represents officials who create the budgets and set policies for local school districts has taken no public stand on the $2 billion borrowing.

Tim Kremer, executive director of the New York State School Boards Association, said school officials have expressed everything from concerns about how the bonding is structured to whether the money could end up serving as a replacement for other state money that would otherwise flow to schools. Still, he said, a number of officials say that if the state wants to give them money, they will spend it.

There are some worries, though, that the money might not really be free. Will schools, for instance, have to use their own money to train staff or maintain any new devices, software or other products purchased with the bond proceeds?

Kremer said if that’s the case, then, maybe some districts won’t take the state up on all the spending.

“I haven’t seen a lot of enthusiasm, nor have I seen a lot of negative concern,” Kremer said of school board officials across the state. “I don’t know why, but it just hasn’t caught fire.”

As schools around the state push for more operating aid money from Albany to deal with a property tax cap that has forced a number of classroom program reductions, some school superintendents, meanwhile, have been hesitant to push the bond act proposal.

“Yes, this can do some good, but it cannot distract us from making sure that the basic, ongoing operating needs of school districts are met,” said Robert Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.

What the bond’s potential interest costs might be are difficult to predict, though one fiscal watchdog, E.J. McMahon, president of the Empire Center for Public Policy, estimated the true cost of the $2 billion bond will be at least $500 million in interest.

“It is one of the most poorly conceived and wasteful bond acts in New York State history,” McMahon said.

Besides the school boards and superintendents, other players usually in the education funding fights in Albany are staying on the sidelines. “We haven’t taken a position,” said Billy Easton, executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education, a left-leaning group that every year pushes for more state school aid, especially for economically ailing districts like Buffalo.

On the right, the state Conservative Party calls the borrowing plan short-sighted that relies on buying technology that will be outdated in five years. That, it says, creates an “irresponsible financial burden … on the very children the bond is supposed to help.”