On Tuesday, voters will decide if a $2 billion technology investment to keep schools digitally current is worth the state buying the effort on credit and incurring an approximately $500 million interest payment.

Ballots will offer Proposal Number 3, The Smart Schools Bond Act of 2014.

The referendum seeks to put laptops, tablets, interactive whiteboards and iPads into the hands of students and teachers along with the high-speed broadband connectivity needed to operate them. This is of particular interest in rural and high-poverty districts, areas where digital infrastructure is lacking causing “profound” academic disadvantages for some students, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said.

“Some schools don’t even have the access and that is the lack of broadband,” he said at an October news conference. “What’s even worse is it tends to be the poorer areas and the poorer schools that don’t have the broadband and they’re actually the ones that need it the most and they’re the ones that don’t have it.”

The bond also allocates monies to schools to raze temporary classrooms to construct permanent space for pre-kindergarten programs. Additionally, it would send money to each district to install upgraded security and surveillance systems.

Auburn Enlarged City School District Superintendent of Schools Constance Evelyn served on the three-member Smart Schools Commission, a panel charged with learning from education leaders across the state how best to invest the $2 billion.

At an Oct. 27 news conference, Evelyn, along with commissioners Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google and Geoffrey Canada, president of Harlem Children’s Zone, presented the commission’s 56-page report to the governor.

“The governor’s message really couldn’t be more right in terms of the urgency that we are facing around our insuring that we integrate technology into our classrooms to transform the experience for our students to prepare them for the job economy that they will enter,” Evelyn said.

“Broadband is a game changer.”

Local implications

For Auburn schools, if the bond passes, director of communications Tim Moon would consider how to spend the district’s $3,526,117 allocation.

Moon would look to the district’s technology plan for guidance and knock a few items from the top of the wish list.

“Two key priorities are building infrastructure and adding different ways to display digital content,” he said.

Among the school system’s seven buildings, wireless access is spotty. There are only 60 access points, and Moon believes the district needs to have 500 or so. “Right now we have walk-around coverage.”

As a result, mobile computer carts wheeled from room to room become time consuming to set up and pose trip hazards, he said, and “that type of instruction is only marginally effective … there’s a lot of delay watching websites load, for example.”

“(Wireless) could really push us over the top and open up other technology methods to engage students,” Moon said. “I’m thankful the state recognizes that school districts, like ours, really do need that money to deliver 21st century content.”

To receive the fully state funded monies, should the bond pass, schools must submit spending ideas in a Smart Schools Investment Plan to a review board comprised of the state’s education commissioner, the chancellor of the State University of New York and the state budget director. The bond requires plans have input from parents, teachers, students, community members and other stakeholders.

Mixed support

Despite its aim to bring up-to-date technology to classrooms with the hope of leveling the academic playing field, enthusiasm for the bond is lukewarm among some local superintendents.

“If it passes, it will be like getting an expensive gift from a friend who still owes you money,” said Jordan-Elbridge Superintendent James Froio. “We need full elimination of the Gap Elimination Adjustment first and foremost.”

Since 2010-11, state schools have endured the GEA, a budgetary bait-and-switch, when Albany allots schools hefty foundation aid amounts only to take back a portion to help eliminate overall state budget gaps.

Thanks to the GEA, school districts statewide are out some serious cash – a total of $1.32 billion. The state owes, for example, Jordan-Elbridge approximately $10 million, Cato-Meridian $6.9 million, Port Byron $6.5 million, Weedsport $5.5. million and Skaneateles $4.3 million.

These schools have not bent over backward promoting the passage of the Smart Schools bond especially after working hard to have parents and stakeholders write letters to legislators lobbying for the return of these outstanding GEA amounts.

Criticism of the $2 billion bond extends to the think tank The Empire Center for Public Policy, which refers to the Smart Schools Bond Act as full of “highly debatable promises.”

Considering the state’s already “enormous” debt burden, the center advises voter’s take caution when thinking about voting on the bond.

The state, they claim, will be close to its debt limit should the bond pass. When adding up loans state and local governments are paying back already, every man, woman and child bears a $17,000 portion, the nation’s highest debt service.

According to the center, the bond is not needed for many reasons. Among them, the state has other infrastructure to think about paying for, such as bridges, roads and transit systems. Also, schools didn’t really ask for the additional funds as state aid already supports technology needs. And spending money on ever-changing technology is not prudent, the Empire Center says, because the technology will be outdated before the debt is paid off.

Evelyn understands people have this concern about a rapidly changing technology landscape.

“The purchase of what we should decide is hardware is only one of the allowable expenses for how you will be able to expend these monies as a school,” Evelyn said.

The 4201 Schools Association advocates for the bond act. The association endorses the measure on behalf of its constituents – New York’s deaf, blind and severely physically disabled students.

“Smart Schools should be for all schools,” said Bernadette Kappen, association chair and executive director of the New York Institute for Special Education in the Bronx. “Technology is an important link between an educator and a student who is deaf, blind or physically disabled. It opens the student to a world of information they would otherwise not be able to access.”

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The Empire Center is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit think tank located in Albany, New York. Our mission is to make New York a better place to live and work by promoting public policy reforms grounded in free-market principles, personal responsibility, and the ideals of effective and accountable government.