by Ken Girardin & Noah Duell

In November 2014, New York voters approved the Smart Schools Bond Act, which authorizes up to $2 billion in state general obligation borrowing to finance school district purchases of computers and other classroom technology; improve schools’ high-speed and wireless internet links; install “high-tech smart security features” in school buildings; and build new classrooms for pre-kindergarten programs and to replace temporary classroom structures.

Based on our review of the bond act’s implementation so far, the Smart Schools grant-making process has been sluggish and haphazard, reflecting the program’s overly broad standards and goals. For example:

  • In addition to the interactive whiteboards, computer servers, and laptop, tablet and desktop computers specifically authorized by the bond act, the first round of approved Smart Schools technology purchases has included a wide range of other equipment, such as printers, cameras and video camcorders—as well as furniture and, in at least one district, sport watches.
  • School districts aren’t necessarily required to submit full “sustainability” plans for their expensive technology investments—only to check a box on a form certifying that they have such plans. The same check-the-box exercise is required for school districts to demonstrate they will properly account for technology purchases and inventories.
  • Despite guidelines promising quarterly meetings, the state’s Smart Schools oversight panel met just six times in the 33 months following the bond vote. Out of the $2 billion total authorization, about $322 million (16 percent) has been committed, of which $35 million had been spent through fiscal 2017. The first Smart Schools bonds aren’t scheduled for issuance until March 2018.

The slow rollout is actually good news—because it means state officials still have the opportunity to debug and reboot the Smart Schools program.

While the broad voter-approved borrowing and spending authorization (see below) has the force of law, the implementing language and guidelines can and should be revisited.

Before any more Smart Schools money is committed, borrowed, or spent on classroom technology, state officials need to thoroughly assess how New York schools are already using such technology—and whether it is actually helping children learn better.

The Board of Regents and the Legislature should identify those tech investments most likely to improve educational outcomes. The findings should be translated into more rigorous Smart School application and funding guidelines—giving taxpayers more assurance that the funds will be spent wisely.

Unfortunately, it’s too late to fix the fundamental flaw in the Smart Schools program: the bond act effectively will put New Yorkers more deeply in debt to pay for things their current tax dollars already had been funding out of the state’s annual operating budget—including computers likely to be obsolete before the bonds are paid off.


1. Background

School technology funding had been a low priority for the state Board of Regents and other education groups before the bond act proposal first appeared—out of the blue—in Governor Andrew Cuomo’s January 2014 State of the State address.

Just a few weeks earlier, the state Board of Regents had submitted its annual school aid recommendations to the governor and the Legislature. As of 2013-14, New York’s total elementary and secondary school aid budget of about $21 billion included $37 million in “hardware and technology aid,” which school districts can use to finance the lease or purchase of computer equipment. In requesting a total aid hike of $1.3 billion (6.2 percent), the Regents sought just $1 million more in hardware and technology aid, plus a new allocation of $50 million for “enhanced technology and textbook aid,” which was linked primarily to the cost of implementing new Common Core tests.

Two weeks after his State of the State address, Cuomo included the Smart Schools Bond Act in his 2014-15 Executive Budget submission to the Legislature (see box below). Still, the proposal was barely mentioned in testimony by the state education commissioner and the leaders of various education advocacy groups.

More than technology

Between the bond act’s unveiling by Cuomo in January and its final adoption by the Legislature as part of the state budget in March, the scope of programs eligible for funding expanded significantly. While his State of the State remarks had focused solely on classroom technology, budget legislation submitted by Cuomo weeks later also called for using Smart Schools bond money to build pre-kindergarten classrooms.1

The final budget bill significantly expanded the potential use of bond act funds to include replacement of “classroom trailers with permanent instructional space”—a clause designed mainly to address a longstanding issue in New York City, where more than 7,000 students were being taught in temporary trailers as of the spring of 2014.2 The installation of “high-tech security features in school buildings and on school campuses” was also added to the original list of approved uses.

All three of the major categories eligible for funding under the final version of the bond act—computer technology, building construction and security improvements—were already being funded out of the state’s annual operating budget. As noted, school computer purchases were supported through the hardware and technology category of the aid formula. School building aid alone came to $2.7 billion as of 2013-14—and under the governor’s 2013 gun control initiative, the SAFE Act, schools also became eligible for significantly enhanced building aid to finance security improvements.

Once the bond act had been placed on the ballot, Cuomo appointed a Smart Schools Commission “charged with advising the State on how to best invest the Governor’s proposed $2 billion.”3 The three commission members chosen by the governor included Eric Schmidt, executive chairman and former CEO of Google—which, along with Apple, clearly would be one of the two biggest corporate beneficiaries of a massive added investment in school technology in New York.

Consumer Watchdog, a California-based non-profit advocacy group, labeled Schmidt’s appointment a “conflict of interest” and filed a (subsequently dismissed) complaint over the matter with the state’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics.4 After a series of public symposiums and other events, which served mainly to promote passage of the bond act, the Commission published a 53-page report5 less than a week before votes would be cast.

The bond proposition received only lukewarm support from the Board of Regents,6 the New York State School Boards Association and major public education groups.7 Stronger backing came from the New York State United Teachers union, which committed $200,000 to its own push for support of the bond proposal.8 In conjunction with Cuomo’s re-election campaign, the New York State Democratic Committee sponsored a statewide voter mailing supporting the bond act, which was also highlighted in one of the governor’s own campaign commercials.9

There was no organized opposition to the bond act—although questions and concerns cited by the Empire Center, as well as the Citizens Budget Commission, were echoed in more than a dozen newspaper editorials urging a “no” vote. Noting the lack of demonstrated need for new funding already covered by existing operating aid categories, the Empire Center’s analysis also emphasized these points:

Smart schools funding will boost recurring operating costs. Computer equipment purchased with bond money requires full-time technical support—either from additional staff specialists or contractors—as well as ongoing teacher training. Schools that choose to build pre-K classrooms must hire staff for these programs. New high-tech security needs to be monitored and maintained by new security personnel. These additional costs require local taxes to fund increased school budgets.

Classroom technology purchased with bond funds will be outdated or unusable before the debt is paid off. New York’s state constitution prohibits the issuance of debt “for a period longer than that of the probable life of the work or purpose for which the debt is to be contracted, or in the alternative, the weighted average period of probable life of the works or purposes for which such indebtedness is to be contracted.”10 The Smart Schools law assigns probable life of eight years to classroom technology and security improvements; 20 years to “community connectivity” projects; and 30 years to building projects, and allows the duration of Smart Schools bonds to be set as a weighted average of those categories.

Eight years is the same depreciation period assigned by the state Office of General Services to laptop computers and other “data processing” equipment for purposes of valuing government assets. However, it is beyond the more realistic five-year depreciation schedule that the federal Internal Revenue Service allows private taxpayers to use in writing off “computer and peripheral” purchases.11

The practical experience of most computer users would suggest that, for laptops or tablets assigned to elementary and secondary school students, even five years would be a stretch. The bottom line is that much if not most of the technology purchased with Smart Schools bond money will be obsolete or worn out long before the bonds are paid off.


If such concerns ever crossed the minds of voters, they didn’t prevent the bond act from winning approval by a 62-to-38 percent margin in the November 2014 general election, as shown below. Slightly more than one-fifth of all voters failed to mark any preference on the bond issue, which appeared on the back of paper ballots.


2. Haphazard Implementation

State law approved as part of the 2014-15 budget legislation established the implementation process for the Smart Schools Bond Act.12 To receive funding, school districts are required to submit Smart Schools Investment Plans (SSIPs) for approval by the Smart Schools Review Board. (See the Appendix for a summary of other guidelines.)

Chaired by the state budget director, the panel includes the state education commissioner and the chancellor of the State University of New York (SUNY), whose formal role in elementary and secondary education is otherwise limited to authorizing charter schools.

The investment plans must describe the expenditures to be supported by Smart Schools funding. They are to be submitted online by school districts via the New York State Education Department’s online Business Portal.13 Education Department staff are meant to review the plans prior to submitting them for consideration by the Smart Schools Review Board.

In April 2015, the State Education Department posted an implementation guidance document stating that the Business Portal Application was “under development and will launch on or before June 15, 2015.”14 But the actual launch did not occur until August 14, 2015, nine months after bond act passage.15 The Smart Schools Review Board did not approve the first set of Smart School Investment Plans until May 2016 – a year and a half after bond act passage.

The state Education Department’s implementation guidance documents also indicated that the Review Board would “meet quarterly to review and approve Smart Schools Investment Plans.”16 To date, though, the Board has met six times—monthly from May to July 2016, once in January 2017, and twice in July 2017.

An average of five-and-a-half weeks elapsed between the first three meetings. A period of five-and-a-half months elapsed between the third and fourth meetings and six months elapsed between the fourth and fifth meetings. Only 10 days passed between the fifth and sixth meeting (which had a two-item agenda).

The pattern of irregular scheduling and lengthy delays have created additional hurdles to efficient administration of the program. The Schalmont School District, for example, waited so long for approval that by the time its plan was reviewed, the prices of the laptops had changed and the district needed to submit a revised plan.17

Through the July 24, 2017, meeting, the Board had approved 326 plans from 281 school districts—fewer than half of the 675 eligible districts in the state. Another 13 plans were approved for special education providers who are also eligible to use Smart Schools funding.The funding for the plans approved by the Board totals $321,895,123—about 16 percent of the $2 billion Smart Schools Bond Act.

As shown below, just over half the approved plans involve the acquisition of classroom technology, which by law includes but is not limited to “interactive whiteboards, computer servers, and desktop, laptop and tablet computers.” These plans call for purchasing tens of thousands of desktop, laptop and tablet computers—including 6,720 laptops (at a cost of over $5 million) for the Niagara Falls School District alone.


One third of the plans involve improvements to “school connectivity,” which involves the purchase (or, most often, upgrading) of computer servers and Wi-Fi routers that provide links to individual devices. Ten percent of approved funding is for school security, including improved electronic locking and surveillance technology; 5 percent will be used to build classrooms for pre-kindergarten classes.

Another 190 proposed plans with spending totaling $978 million (48.9 percent of total available bond act funding) have been submitted for review and await approval. Among pending applications is New York City’s proposal to allocate its $783 million allotment, including $300 million to replace portable classrooms, $273 million for school and community internet connections, $110 million for classroom technology, and $100 million for pre-kindergarten classrooms.18



In contrast to existing state financing programs for housing, economic development and infrastructure, the Smart Schools Bond Act did not set up a competitive process design to steer funding to the most effective or innovative uses of bond dollars. Rather, the legislation creating the program used an allocation formula based on each district’s share of the major “base aid” formulas—notably excluding building aid.19 In the months leading up to the bond vote, this approach allowed the Cuomo administration to effectively pre-announce the funding amounts available to every school district in the state.

By guaranteeing a set level of available funding for each district, the Smart Schools Bond Act allocation scheme also encourages school boards to seek funds regardless of need; even if a district has just completed a round of equipment purchases with support from the existing hardware and technology aid, it nonetheless can apply for bond act money to invest in even more. After all, why not?

Indeed, the Smart Schools Investment Plans of some school districts demonstrate that they were well ahead of the state in taking steps to advance school technology even before the bond act was first proposed.

For example, through a capital construction project approved in 2012, the Lancaster Central School District had completed a “major technology infrastructure upgrade” by the summer of 2014, expanding its bandwidth to meet federal standards for classroom connectivity20 and purchasing 1,800 laptop computers for classroom use two years before the bond act was passed. While Lancaster plans to use bond act funds for additional laptops to “increase our student to device ratio,” the district will spend more than 70 percent of its allocation ($2.1 million) on construction of eight new classrooms for pre-K students.21

Other districts, meanwhile, have been inspired to gild their tech lilies. For example, the rural Chenango Forks schools’ existing one-gigabit internet broadband connections exceed by an order of magnitude the current Federal Communications Commission (FCC) guidelines calling for 100-megabit connections for every 1,000 students.22 But that didn’t stop the district from requesting $706,583 for connectivity upgrades, including $186,200 to equip schools with 10-gigabit fiber connections—enough bandwidth to let all 700 students at the district’s largest school stream two high-definition videos simultaneously.

Hilton Central School District, already offering double the FCC-recommended bandwidth, will spend $1.6 million to produce sufficient bandwidth to simultaneously service 90 wireless devices per classroom of 30 students—i.e., three devices per student.23

Pushing the “tech” envelope

The Empire Center’s sampling of board-approved plans also found spending that stretches the definition of smart school technology.24

For example:

  • Furniture — Putnam Valley Central School District’s plan includes three “Motiv Love Seats” at $950 each, two “Motiv Tables” at $480 each, ten “Activity Tables” at $330 each, five “Motiv Armless Chair[s]” at $665 each, 15 “Table[s] with Laminate” at $530 each, five “Cafe Table[s]” at $530 each, 15 “Swivel Stool[s]” at $95 each, and 40 “Contemporary Chairs” at $60 each.25
  • Sport Watches – South Lewis Central School District’s plan includes purchase of 25 “Polar Phys Ed Watch[s]” at $140 each, in addition to 49 “VR [virtual reality] goggles” at $300 each and six “FM audio systems” at $1,000 each.26
  • Milling Machine – the Albany City School District’s plan includes purchasing a replacement for a 15-year-old “CAD/CAM milling machine,” justified on the grounds that the machine allows students to use computer coding used in the computer-assisted design and manufacturing field.27 But no further specifics were offered on the type of machine that will be purchased, or what it will cost.
  • Laser Engraver – York Central School District’s plan includes a $25,000 “laser engraver” in addition to a $21,000 3-D printer.28

Lessons Learned?

Tech-buying binges have been spectacular flops in some districts around the country, including Los Angeles, which had to pull the plug on an ambitious plan to equip every student with an iPad (see below). As Wired magazine later put it, “Learning from LA’s mistakes… is critical to ensuring that already resource-strapped schools won’t continue spending precious funding on misguided programs.”29

It’s not clear, however, that New York’s program has adequate safeguards to ensure that similar failures are avoided here.

New York’s program requires that the Smart Schools Investment Plans submitted by school districts illustrate that they are meeting “Keys to Success for Achieving a Smart School” as outlined in the New York Smart Schools Commission report.30  Schools must show that their technology facilitates differentiated learning (i.e., instructional plans geared to the needs and capabilities of individual students); strengthens communication between students, parents, and teachers; expands equal access; and focuses on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) skills.

The state’s investment plan template31 includes this requirement, which was among those identified as crucial in the Smart Schools Commission report:

“To ensure the sustainability of technology purchases made with Smart Schools funds, districts must demonstrate a long-term plan to maintain and replace technology purchases supported by Smart Schools Bond Act funds. This sustainability plan shall demonstrate a district’s capacity to support recurring costs of use that are ineligible for Smart Schools Bond Act funding such as device maintenance, technical support, Internet and wireless fees, maintenance of hotspots, staff professional development, building maintenance and the replacement of incidental items. Further, such a sustainability plan shall include a long-term plan for the replacement of purchased devices and equipment at the end of their useful life with other funding sources.”

But to comply with this requirement, school districts apparently are not required to actually submit a sustainability plan to the state. Instead, as shown below, they need to—literally—check a box. The state’s template takes the same “check-the-box” approach to ensuring that “devices purchased with Smart Schools Bond Act funds will be distributed, prepared for use, maintained and supported appropriately,” and they will “maintain detailed device inventories in accordance with generally accepted accounting principles.”


Despite these minimal requirements, some state-approved plans did offer at least some evidence of planning. The Byram Hills Central School District, for example, pilot-tested several interactive whiteboards before selecting the type it will purchase with bond act money.32 But this approach was the exception rather than the rule.

Even assuming the best intentions by box-checking school officials, it’s unclear how many districts actually are prepared to “maintain and replace” bond-funded technology purchases, or to exercise financial rigor in controlling inventory and managing computer assets.


Equipping today’s students with the skills to succeed tomorrow is clearly a goal deserving the attention of New York’s state and local school policymakers and administrators. Unfortunately, the 2014 Smart Schools Bond Act was undertaken without a thorough assessment of the need for additional equipment, the instructional value of classroom computers, or the pitfalls of huge spending on school technology.

The downside to the state’s implementation of the Smart Schools Bond Act is that it has been sluggish and haphazard.

The upside is that the slow start offers the opportunity to halt and reboot New York’s Smart Schools program.

While voter approval of the bond act authorized borrowing of up to $2 billion for this purpose, it did not require that all the money be raised or spent. Nor did it lock in place the implementing language of the statute.

Beyond any irreversible initial funding commitments, further program approvals for Smart Schools technology investments should be suspended to allow more careful consideration of the issue by the Legislature, the governor and the Board of Regents.

The non-technology portions of the program—financing pre-K classrooms and replacing temporary classroom structures—could continue, although they should be more closely integrated with the existing annual building aid formula, through which $2.7 billion a year already flows to districts on the basis of need.

School and community “connectivity” projects should be examined more closely with respect to districts’ existing bandwidth capacity—and actual needs.

At a time when the state is promoting shared services and consolidation, Smart Schools’ district-level approach to technology overlooks the importance of the state’s Board of Cooperative Education Services (BOCES) infrastructure, which could be harnessed to address questions about how technology-based curricula are developed and how equipment is supported. The existing BOCES Regional Information Center (RIC) model provides technical support for a range of district- and school-level functions, and could be embraced to reduce long-term costs for programs created with Smart Schools funds.

Before committing another dollar of state bond act funds to school technology purchases, the Legislature must direct the Education Department to conduct the comprehensive assessment of school technology that should have been performed before the 2014 proposal proceeded.

The study should include:

  • Statewide review of the extent to which classroom technology has been acquired and used in New York schools.
  • Assessment of extent to which hardware, software, curriculum, and teacher training have been integrated.
  • Stronger requirements and more transparent compliance with standards assuring the sustainability of Smart School initiatives and accountable for the technology assets purchased with bond act money.
  • Strategies to effectively coordinate and leverage state, federal, and private funding for school technology.

The study findings should be delivered to the Legislature by the fall of 2018, to serve as the basis for shaping more carefully crafted implementing legislation for the program starting in 2019-20.

Further, the Education Department should be given a mandate, along with sufficient funding, to commission an independent, large-scale, multi-year randomized control trial to determine the influence of learning technologies on learning outcomes in elementary and secondary school grades.

In the absence of assurances that Smart School projects will be effective, sustainable and accounted for, the fundamental flaw of the Smart Schools program remains the financial soundness of long-term borrowing for short-term assets.

As noted above, whether in the form of whiteboards, laptops, tablets or Wi-Fi routers, much of the technology purchased by Smart Schools Bond Act funds is bound to become obsolete within the eight years allowed for bond payoffs—without even considering the rough usage such equipment is likely to receive from any typical group of school children.

Sound financial practice requires short-term assets to be purchased and maintained with regularly budgeted operating funds rather than long-term borrowing. In fact, New York’s school aid includes money for instructional technology and software: a total of $122 million during fiscal 2018.33

The annual impact of the Smart Schools Bond Act will cost even more. Assuming the current statutory language leads to a weighted average bond maturity of 20 years, the $2 billion in borrowing would translate into added debt service costs of $145 million—on top of the existing technology aid.

Critiquing a state bond issue that refinanced highway infrastructure to cover road maintenance costs, former Assembly Republican Leader Clarence D. Rappleyea said, “You don’t mortgage the house to paint it.” By the same token, the state shouldn’t resort to long-term borrowing to pay for cyclical upgrades of worn or outdated computer technology.

As New York State’s leaders make their next decisions about when to borrow and what to borrow for, that advice deserves to be heard and heeded.

A final flaw of the program is its focus on acquiring technology, rather than improving educational outcomes. As Smart Schools is now structured, districts will be able to draw down millions for technology upgrades without ever determining whether their investments actually improved learning. That needs to change. School districts should be required to establish benchmarks for measuring whether the bond funding produces better results.


1 FY2015 Executive Budget, Education, Labor and Family Assistance legislation.

Al Baker, “Bush to Rid City of Classrooms That Are Anything but Temporary,” New York Times, March 31, 2014.

3 “Governor Cuomo Announces Members of the Smart School Commission,” Press Release, April 17, 2014.

4 John Simpson, “Consumer Watchdog Calls On Gov. Cuomo to Remove Google Chairman Eric Schmidt From NY Smart Schools Panel And Block Company From Providing Tech To Schools,” Press Release, April 28, 2014.

5 New York Smart Schools Commission Report, October 27, 2014.

6 Jessica Bakeman, “Tisch, school groups lukewarm to Cuomo bond proposal,” Politico New York, October 9, 2014.

7 Cathy Woodruff, “Support appears lukewarm for Smart Schools Bond Act,” Buffalo News, November 3, 2014.

8 Democrats, Teachers Launch Last Minute Bond Act Push,, October 10, 2014.

9 Jillian Jorgensen, “Cuomo Helps with Homework in New Campaign Ad on Education,” Observer, October 20, 2014.

10 Article VII, Section 12.

11 Publication 946 (2016), How to Depreciate Property.

12 Smart Schools Bond Act Of 2014 (Chapter 54 and Chapter 55 of the Laws of 2014).

13 NYSED Business Portal.

14 Smart Schools Bond Act Implementation Guidance, New York State Education Department, April 27, 2015.

15 Smart Schools Bond Act Implementation Guidance, New York State Education Department, May 16, 2016.

16 Op. Cit. SSBA Implementation Guidance, New York State Education Department, May 16, 2016.

17 In Depth: The Waiting Game, WNYT News Channel 13, May 18, 2017.

18 Revised NYC DOE Smart Schools Investment Plan.

19 Ch. 52 of 2014

20 The Federal Communications Commission E-rate Modernization Order established an Internet access target for schools of at least 100 Mbps per 1,000 students in the short term and 1 Gbps Internet access per 1,000 users in the longer term.

21 Lancaster Central School District Smart School Investment Plan, December 7, 2015.

22 Chenango Forks Central School District Smart School Investment Plan, September 22, 2016.

23 Hilton Central School District Smart School Investment Plan, June 16, 2016.

24 Our evaluation is based on a sampling of the Smart School Investment Plans approved by the Smart School Bond Act Review Board as of July 24, 2017.

25 Putnam Valley Central School District Smart School Investment Plan, July 14, 2017.

26 South Lewis Central School District Smart School Investment Plan, May, 10, 2017.

27 Albany City School District Smart School Investment Plan, May, 4, 2017.

28 York Central School District Smart School Investment Plan, April 26, 2017.

29 What Schools Must Learn from LA’s iPad Debacle, Wired, May 8, 2015.

30 Op. Cit. NY Smart Schools Commission Report.

31 Smart School Investment Plan Template, New York State Department of Education, August 25, 2016.

32 Byram Hills Central School District Smart School Investment Plan, May 1, 2017.

33 $38 million for Instructional Computer Hardware and Technology Equipment Aid; $46 million for Computer Software Purchases Aid; $38 million for computer administration in the “Big Five” city school districts and non-BOCES districts, according to 2017-2018 State Aid Handbook, New York State Education Department.

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