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Not so smart

The authors of Proposal Three clearly think most New Yorkers will be reluctant to vote against “smart schools.” A close look at the Smart Schools Bond Act of 2014, however, supplies reason enough to say no to this proposition on the Nov. 4 ballot.

The chief problem with Proposal Three is not its aim. Upgrading classroom technology, Internet connectivity and security features—these are all good things. So, too, is more equal access to “opportunities for children to learn.”

But this ballot measure proposes to achieve these ends by allowing the state to borrow up to $2 billion—money to be distributed to the districts for spending on desktop, laptop and tablet computers, interactive whiteboards and computer servers, plus high-speed broadband and wireless Internet access. And yes, also to fund construction of new pre-kindergarten classrooms “to replace transportable classroom units.”

Other than the new pre-kindergarten classrooms, which many districts do not need, the spending would go for items with a relatively brief useful life. Yet the bonds likely would be paid back over 15 to 20 years. And, of course, long-term borrowing means you also need to factor in significant interest payments—some $500 million, the Empire Center for Public Policy estimates.

The Empire Center, which has been among the most vocal critics of Proposal Three, usefully reminds voters that New York already has the highest debt burden in the nation—in the range of $350 billion, or more than $17,000 for each resident of the state.

Costs related to borrowing are not the only ones here. Schools receiving Proposal Three funds must then pay for training and computer support services.

A curious fact noted by the Empire Center: School districts statewide did not even ask for this money. Gov. Andrew Cuomo unwrapped the proposal in his 2014 State of the State address, and he has been its chief proponent. Perhaps school officials did not request the funds because they already receive aid to buy computer-related technology.

Again, prudent investment in technology for schools is not the issue. It’s the inappropriate and unwise use of long-term borrowing for this purpose. For New Yorkers, the smart thing to do Nov. 4 is vote no.

10/24/14 (c) 2014 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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