New York’s Smart Schools Bond Act was billed as a way to get schools up to technological snuff.
The costly, cumbersome program is a poor substitute for smart budgeting.
Despite never-ending complaints about the burdens of local property taxes, New Yorkers do like to see public money go for education, especially when it comes back from the state to their local district.
That no doubt explains why in 2014 voters approved the Smart Schools Bond Act, which authorized $2 billion in state borrowing for grants to local districts for all kinds of technology enhancements.
The definition of what projects qualified, however, was wide enough to drive a fleet of school buses through. So far the money has gone to buy tablet and laptop computers for children, upgrade classroom technology and pay for construction of new classrooms. In New York City’s overcrowded schools, funds are paying for new classroom space for pre-K programs. Some districts in western New York proposed using the funds to install facial recognition software for their security systems, drawing the ire of civil libertarians.
When the Smart Schools act was presented as a ballot proposition, critics said it would increase the state’s debt and take many years to pay off. The repayment period for borrowing on equipment and systems purchases would be eight years, which would mean taxpayers will still be paying off debt on technology even after it became obsolete. Construction bonds would be long-term debt, stretching 20 to 30 years.
Now the state is facing complaints by districts that the process to obtain their piece of the pie is too lengthy and complicated. A study by the Empire Center called the rollout to local districts “sluggish and haphazard.” The fiscally conservative center also questioned how the borrowed money is being spent, with such a sizable portion going for construction, not the new technology on which the bond issue was sold to voters.
Schools say that the Education Department doesn’t have enough staff to process applications efficiently, and that delays take so much time that the cost of technology sometimes goes up while they’re waiting. The grants require final approval of a review board consisting of Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, SUNY Chancellor Kristina Johnson and state Budget Director Robert Mujica, or their designees. The state Association of School Business Officials has urged the Education Department to add more resources to expedite approvals.
Schools unquestionably need to be on top of the newest technologies. But borrowing for an ongoing need like up-to-date computers and software isn’t the way. What happens when the money runs out? Do we pass another proposition and borrow more?
Instead of running a convoluted grants process and adding to the state’s long-term debt, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Legislature should come up with a budget that ensures New York’s students are prepared to succeed. Much of this should be paid for like any other operating expense — out of regular state education funding. And it could be, if the state ever got up to the level of spending it promised before the budget crisis brought on by the 2008 recession.
It doesn’t take a complex computer program to solve this, just political will and the right priorities.