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New Yorkers to Vote on $2 Billion School Spending Plan

Opponents say the plan amounts to irresponsible spending while supporters call it a solution to overcrowded schools.

ELECTION 2014: This article is part of our coverage of ballot measures to watch.

In New York State’s public schools, the word temporary has a loose definition. Classroom trailers, meant as a temporary solution to accommodate increasing enrollment, have become permanent fixtures on blacktops. This is especially true for New York City, where more than 7,000 students attend class in 350 trailers. Many of these classrooms are well beyond their recommended 10-year life but without an alternative, schools have taken to maintaining and repairing them as needed. And they certainly lack flashy accessories -- like interactive whiteboards and high speed internet -- that well funded classrooms have. 

That could change if New Yorkers approve a $2 billion borrowing plan that would spend money on school construction, including expanding schools to accommodate new pre-kindergarten classes, and install technological upgrades to the state’s K-12 schools. Dubbed the Smart Schools Bond Act, proponents argue the money would move kids out of badly deteriorating classrooms that pose a health and safety risk into space fit for a 21st Century education. That space includes better technological equipment like interactive whiteboards, computers, tablets and a high tech security systems.

Integrating technology into school curriculum isn't just about saving money on paper and copying expenses. A 2010 study called Project RED (which was, admittedly, sponsored by technology companies Intel, Apple, Qwest Communications and eChalk) found that such a curriculum could reduce both dropout rates and disciplinary actions, and could help improve student performance on standardized tests.

State Assemblyman Francisco Moya, whose district in Queens suffers from school overcrowding, said he is campaigning for the act because it provides the best means to finally get students the space they need. Queens is home to half of all the school trailers in New York City.

“For those who claim the Smart Schools Bond Act is not a good investment, I challenge you to consider what it’s like to send your child to school in a thin-walled trailer every day,” he said in a statement to Governing. “How can we prepare our students for the economy of the future if they’re learning with the technology of the past?”

Opponents, however, warn that the act’s proposed spending on technological equipment is irresponsible because the technology will be obsolete long before the bonds used to buy them are paid off. “While bridges and subways undeniably are long-term investments, buying computers would be a wasteful use of the state’s increasingly scarce capital-bonding capacity,” wrote E.J. McMahon, president of the Empire Center for Public Policy, in a recent New York Post op-ed.

It's unclear how much will be spent on equipment versus construction if the bond act passes -- that's left up to the schools. The $2 billion would be divided up between the state’s 675 school districts based on the state funding formula which takes into account things like student population and household incomes in each district. The districts would then come up with a proposed spending plan under the parameters of the bond act.

Matt Fabian, an analyst with the research firm Municipal Market Advisors, said the sheer size of the spending proposal highlights how far schools have fallen behind since the 2008 recession. That’s because the technology needs of today have evolved over the past five years while schools were busy laying off teachers and working with smaller budgets. Some states are increasing education funding again, but it’s a much steeper cost curve for schools to recover. Schools aren’t just restoring cuts, Fabian said, but they have to spend even more to keep pace with education’s changing technology.

Still, it’s unusual for long-term bonds to be issued for technological equipment. Last year, Los Angeles was criticized for using long-term construction bonds to pay for the first phase of its program that sought to distribute an iPad to every student. (In August, the program was "placed on hiatus" amid a contracting scandal.) Typically, Fabian said, bank loans and other kinds of short-term instruments such as leases have been used for short-life assets.

The borrowing plan does address that issue somewhat. Bonds issued to pay for technology equipment would be paid back in eight years while bonds issued to install wireless internet would be a 20-year commitment. Bonds issues for building construction would be paid back over the more traditional, 30 years. But some believe the tech timeline is too generous.

“You’re still running the risk that eight years might be too long a period,” said Howard Cure, director of municipal research at Evercore Wealth Management. “Technology changes and there’s always a new product coming out.”

Cure also estimates that the borrowing plan could put the state close to its statutory debt limit with less than $1 billion to spare. That’s a narrow window for a state that is no stranger to billion dollar market transactions.

With less than a week to go before Election Day, the act’s supporters have been applying the pressure. The New York State United Teachers union has launched a $200,000 television ad campaign to urge voters to support the act while the state Democratic Committee has launched a pro-bond mail campaign. The campaigns argue that the spending will give students safe schools and ensures they graduate with the necessary skills in today’s high tech economy.

Liz Farmer is a former GOVERNING fiscal policy writer.
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