NYS schools have $700M in unspent money

Channel 2's Heather Ly reports on how some Western New York school districts want to spend their share of the Smart Schools Bond Act money.

ALBANY - School districts across New York are sitting on $700 million in unspent state money -- enough to buy about 2 million iPads or Chromebooks.

But when it comes to spending what's left of the state's Smart Schools Bond Act, patience may be key.

In 2014, New York voters approved the bond act: A plan to borrow $2 billion to purchase technological equipment, boost network and WiFi connectivity and fund high-tech security upgrades in the state's schools.

In the three years since, many school districts have been quick to budget their share -- including New York City, whose $783 million spending plan is awaiting state approval.

Others are taking more of a wait-and-see approach.

DATABASE: How much is your school district getting?

The USA Today Network's Albany Bureau dug in to state data and documents showing how New York's school districts are spending their cut.

Here's four things you need to know.

1) $1.3B is gone (or about to be)

Each district gets a share of the $2 billion total based on the state's complicated school-funding formula.
About two-thirds of New York's 728 school districts have already submitted plans to the state showing how they're planning to spend the money.

Add up how much they're budgeting to spend and $1.3 billion of the $2 billion bond act has already been claimed.

More than half of the total claimed belongs to New York City, home to more than 1 million of the state's 2.5 million public-school students.

The city's plan is awaiting approval from a state review board, which includes representatives from the state Education Department, Division of Budget and SUNY.

The next biggest claimed sums belong to Rochester ($35.4 million) and Buffalo ($27 million). That includes money already approved -- $26.9 million in Rochester's case -- and other plans awaiting approval.

Rochester's plan will support a bevy of tech purchases and upgrades: laptops, tablets, computers for labs, smart board projects, new WiFi points and high-resolution digital surveillance cameras, among them.
“Rochester’s Smart Schools Investment Plan will provide our students and teachers with the tools necessary to thrive in this digital age, which, in turn, will help create schools that produce sustainable, positive outcomes for our students," Rochester Superintendent Barbara Deane-Williams said in a statement.

2) It's not all high-tech

A big chunk of the money isn't going toward the high-tech gadgets that are quickly becoming commonplace in the classroom.

Instead, it will go toward building the classrooms themselves.

Before state lawmakers approved sending the bond act out to voters, they included a sweetener for on-the-fence legislators from New York City: The ability to spend the money on pre-kindergarten classrooms and replacing temporary classroom space.

New York City and other districts across the state have aggressively expanded pre-K offerings in recent years, often leading to a space crunch. And some New York City classes had been relegated to temporary, mobile classrooms -- AKA trailers.

At least a handful of districts are taking advantage of it.

A full $400 million of New York City's plan -- or a fifth of the full $2 billion statewide -- will go toward building pre-K classrooms and getting rid of the mobile trailers.

The Ossining school district in Westchester County put it's entire $1.5 million share toward pre-K rooms at the Park Early Childhood Center. That portion of the project has been approved, but the district is awaiting state building approvals before proceeding.

"We basically doubled our (pre-K) program a couple years ago," said Alita Zuber, Ossining's assistant superintendent for business. "That impacted other spaces in the building, so we needed the extra classroom space."

3) Patience is key

Critics of the bond act have pointed to the short shelf life of the high-tech gadgets and tools many districts are using the funding for, considering the state will be paying back the cost of the bond over the course of years.
But some school districts are taking that into account, saving a portion of their share to buy a new round of equipment as technology advances and the old round becomes obsolete.

The funding has no expiration date.

Take the Hyde Park school system in Dutchess County, near Poughkeepsie.

The district's initial plan, which was approved earlier this year, used up about $2 million of its $2.6 million share, leaving about $600,000 for replacement products.

"This is a wonderful gift, if you will, that we can bring in this level of technology to our students and staff right now," said Richard Wert, Hyde Park's director of technology. "But it's not money we intend on seeing ever again.

So by holding some money back, I have enough money for a replacement cycle."

Brian Fessler, a government relations representative for the state School Boards Association, said districts purchasing smaller pieces of equipment were able to put their plans together quicker. Putting together a plan to build classrooms or rework computer networks is a heavier lift.

"For the districts that identified a need for the smaller technology items -- Chromebooks in the classroom and other simple purchases -- that's easier to come up with the plan," Fessler said.

4) The wait is long

For schools, it's not as simple as just submitting a plan and collecting their money.

There's an extensive approval process in place, along with requirements to notify and engage the public before ever submitting a plan in the first place.

First a school district has to submit a letter of intent for the state Education Department's facilities staff to review. Then they have to submit a full plan for other state staffers to review. Then the Education Department's senior management reviews it before it heads to the bond act's review board, which also includes Gov. Andrew Cuomo's budget director and SUNY.

And even after that, the money is a reimbursement. Schools have to front the cost of the projects before getting their money back.

"It's a tortuous process," Wert said.  "There's some fantastic people working in the state department. It's the bureaucracy piece of it that was painful."

The state Education Department has acknowledged there's been some grumbling among school districts about bureaucratic delays.

But the agency says the strict process is necessary to ensure the funds are being spent wisely and in accordance with the bond act.

How did my school district fare?

Check our how much your district is looking to spend at rochester.nydatabases.com.

© Gannett Co., Inc. 2017. All Rights Reserved


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