School Tech Bonds Helping Scarsdale Lost on Yonkers

| Bloomberg

Governor Andrew Cuomo wants to borrow $2 billion for classroom technology in what would be New York’s biggest school-bond issue since 1997. Yet education groups say they didn’t ask for it, and some districts say they’d rather add teachers or universal pre-kindergarten.

Further complicating Cuomo’s push for voter passage of the Smart Schools Bond Act on Nov. 4 is an ethics complaint by a consumer group that says Google Inc. (GOOG) Chairman Eric Schmidt should be removed from a panel advising the state on how to spend proceeds of the debt sale.

“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,” said Michael Yazurlo, superintendent for the 40-school Yonkers system. “I just haven’t seen hard, cold data that tells me that technology has actually had a positive impact on instruction and/or student achievement.”

Cuomo, a 56-year-old Democrat running for re-election, included the bond measure in his January budget with little fanfare. It would be the state’s largest issue for education since a $2.4 billion school-facility proposal was rejected by voters 17 years ago.

Gaining Skills

In addition to paying for computer servers, high-speed broadband and interactive white boards, proceeds may also be used to build classrooms for pre-kindergarten programs, replace trailers with permanent space and install “high-tech smart security” in schools, according to the proposal’s text.

“With access to advanced technology and a more interactive curriculum in the classroom, students are more likely to successfully learn at their own pace and gain the skills necessary to succeed in the 21st century economy,” said Morris Peters, a spokesman for Cuomo’s budget department.

More than 500 schools don’t have broadband service, according to the state, and many low-income students don’t have computers at home.

New York City, which educates more than 1 million students, would get about $780 million if the referendum passes. About $490 million would pay for technology, and the rest would go toward restructuring buildings to add seats for universal pre-K, said Wiley Norvell, a spokesman for Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Classroom Chromebooks

One of the state’s wealthiest communities, Scarsdale, will get $445,000,according to the governor’s office. High school students in the New York City suburb currently can take a course in 3-D computer animation, and every fifth-grader gets a Google Chromebook laptop to use in class. The district’s $1.4 million annual technology budget funds computer labs in every school, including 90 terminals in the high school library and a 20-member staff.

Scarsdale, where the median household income is $232,422, could use the money to upgrade the wireless network in the middle school and high school or extend the laptop program to more grades, said Jerry Crisci, the district’s director of technology. A committee including parents would decide how the money is allocated.

“We always have more requests for computer hardware than we can provide every year,” Crisci said in a telephone interview.

Yonkers Contrast

The situation is different in Yonkers, where 70 percent of students are eligible for free lunches and only 22 percent in grades three through eight are proficient in math. Yazurlo, the superintendent, said new technology isn’t his priority. The district has one social worker for every 2,500 students. Most schools don’t have full art and music programs and many have part-time librarians. Junior-varsity sports have been eliminated.

Yonkers would get $24 million if the bond act passes, according to the governor’s office. Yazurlo said he’ll direct his staff to do a technology inventory, determining the number, age and condition of the district’s computers and network speed.

“I believe the more one-to-one or small group interaction that kids have with adults in their lives is much more important,” Yazurlo said. “But I also know our children also need to stay competitive.”

In April, Cuomo appointed Schmidt to a three-member panel that is advising the state how to spend the $2 billion in proceeds to “enhance learning and teaching” through technology, according to a news release from the governor.

The commission has hosted public sessions in Albany, Buffalo and New York City to gather recommendations from local and national education and technology specialists.

‘Purely Advisory’

Consumer Watchdog, a Santa Monica, California-based advocacy group,filed a complaint with New York’s ethics commission, saying the Google chairman’s appointment is a conflict of interest and asking for his removal.

Dani Lever, a spokeswoman for Cuomo, said New Yorkers are “lucky” that Schmidt is volunteering his time.

“The commission he is on is purely advisory and will not be recommending specific products,” Lever said. “Instead, school purchases will be determined by guidelines set by a statutory panel of state officials, individual needs of school districts and a procurement process specifically designed to ensure taxpayer dollars go to the best bid.”

After the bond act was introduced in the governor’s budget, Google lobbied Cuomo’s office and the state assembly on “education language in the budget bill,” according to the company’s March-April 2014 lobbyist report filed with the state’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics.

California, Maine

The governor’s staff discussed the bond proposal with Google and other technology firms after it was included in the executive budget, not before, said Lever. Staff also met with Google in April to provide information on student-data privacy legislation passed as part of the budget.

Niki Christoff, a spokeswoman for Mountain View, California-based Google, declined to comment on the ethics complaint.

New York’s bond issue won’t be the biggest on Election Day. California and Maine voters will also decide on borrowing measures. California voters are considering an $11.1 billion bond for the state’s water system.

Plan Criticized

In New York, the proposal is drawing criticism from those who say the state shouldn’t use scarce capital-financing capacity for equipment that may become obsolete or may not be used properly because of lack of training. E.J. McMahon, president of the Empire Center for New York State Policy in Albany, a research group that advocates less government spending, said not every school district needs the money.

“You’re putting cash on the table in front of bureaucrats saying use it or lose it, whether they need it or not,” McMahon said. “Are that many teachers prepared to make the best possible use of a Chromebook or a tablet or a smart board?”

New York would issue general-obligation bonds in stages, said Peters, the budget department spokesman. The state’s general obligations are rated AA+ by Standard & Poor’s and Aa1 by Moody’s Investors Service, the second-highest investment grades. Ten-year debt yields 2.1 percent, the same as top-rated general-obligation bonds, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Didn’t Ask

The Cuomo administration didn’t consult the New York State School Boards Association, which represents more than 700 boards of education, before introducing the bond measure, said Tim Kremer, the group’s executive director.

“This was not something that we had advocated for and not asked for,” said Kremer. The organization, which doesn’t have an official position on the referendum, said it supports providing schools greater access to technology.

A survey of the organization’s membership about the measure generated 600 responses, including questions on whether it was a smart use of borrowed money and what the one-time infusion would mean for budgets when the equipment has to be replaced years later. Teachers also raised concerns over a lack of training, he said.

School board members “still have uncertainty in their own minds as to how technology can be effectively used in the classroom,” Kremer said. “I personally think it’s the way to go.”

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