Monday, October 13, 2014

School Board 101

Third in a series:

School board members learn early on how to spend one-time money; for example, that $150K in annual pork from your State Senator. Maybe you repair a roof. Maybe you buy something you would buy anyway that doesn't have maintenance costs—new auditorium seating, say, or replacement tables for the science lab. Here's what you don't do with found money: Hire personnel. Purchase anything with a maintenance contract or licensing fees. Start a new initiative. Build something new.

Now here comes NYS's Proposal 3, the sweetly nicknamed "Smart Schools Bond Act." It forks over $2B to

"purchase educational technology equipment and facilities, such as interactive whiteboards, computer servers, desktop and laptop computers, tablets and high-speed broadband or wireless internet; construct and modernize facilities to accommodate pre-kindergarten programs and replacing classroom trailers with permanent instructional space; and install high-tech security features in school buildings."
It's a boatload of money. You can go online and find out how much your district might get. It's going to be hard for districts to resist. But maybe you see where I'm going with this. Proposal 3 violates every one-time-money rule. It is, as I like to say, the gift that keeps on taking.

People are complaining about Proposal 3 because they think bonding is too risky and expensive or because they feel it's a sly way to get districts ready for online testing. Nobody seems to be talking about how just-plain-stupid it is to buy a mess of technology with one-time money when that technology has a short shelf-life and its purchase price is merely the tip of the cost iceberg.

Go ahead, buy an interactive whiteboard. In fact, buy one for every classroom. Then figure in the retrofitting and additional hardware. Then train your teachers to use the whiteboard. Then buy the software and technical support. Then buy a tablet for every student. Then update your network to enable these materials to work. Buy switches. Buy lots of switches at $8-$10K apiece. Don't forget the annual maintenance costs for each switch. Don't forget the bulbs for your projectors and the yearly licensing fees for every bit of software. And more professional development—a lot. Maybe you need to buy 20 or 40% of a BOCES employee to show your teachers how to use technology for instruction, because who else is going to do it? But we're done giving you money. It's year one, you've had the spending approved, you've bought the actual stuff. Now you're on your own. And what will you do in 2019 when all that new stuff is old stuff? Do you imagine that we'll have another $2B bond to bail you out? Or will it all sit on a shelf somewhere gathering dust like your teaching machines and VCRs?

Paul likes to talk about the "carrying capacity" of a district, which he defines as the amount of stuff a district can support and replace in a given year. Ideally, districts are on a cycle, during which they budget to replace 1/5 (or any reasonable fraction) of their technology each year, thus ensuring a sustainable turnover. A windfall can crush a district, and the Proposal 3 windfall is big enough to kill.

It is also being sold right in the ballot text as something that will "equalize" opportunities in classrooms across the state, which is just silly. Prop 3 is based, as usual, on the same inequitable formula that underpins all other school funding. Rich districts get a lot of money. Poor districts get less money.

Now let's look at part 2: modernizing facilities to accommodate pre-K and replacing classroom trailers. Where, you might ask, are these classroom trailers? Well, they are in the urban districts overseen by Cathy Nolan and Francisco Moya, which is why those folks, among others, are eager to see this pass. Dryden has housed its primary kids at the big K-5 building in a modular hallway for 25 years or more. Not a trailer, exactly, but perhaps not an ideal instructional space. But the trailers are in NYC, as are the schools that need space for Pre-K. Upstate districts are losing population, and if they don't already have Pre-K, they're not about to invest in it just because they suddenly get money to build a classroom they don't need. So part 2 is really wholly downstate. I don't mind replacing some other district's trailers, but it would be a lot better for us upstate if this were done as another building project initiative, where any district could apply for any building project it needed and get a larger-than-usual percentage of that project paid for by the state.

As for "high-tech" security features, most districts around here have already put those in as part of a building project. Such features come with maintenance costs as well (and personnel, in some cases), so they are not appropriate purchases with one-time money.

If I had to guess, I'd expect this one to pass. It's money for schools! Who doesn't like that? A Google guy, Geoffrey Canada, and the Superintendent of Auburn served on the Commission, so it's obviously fair-and-balanced!

Well, it may be Smart Schools, but it's Stupid Finance. It violates School Board 101 rules and should be shot down. Vote no.

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