Classroom Technology

How Massive K-12 Bond Issues During COVID-19 Are Shaping School Technology Plans

By Benjamin Herold — November 17, 2020 5 min read
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New school bonds will help pay for computing devices and internet connectivity that schools from California to Texas to New Hampshire need to continue remote learning during the coronavirus pandemic.

Among the measures approved by voters earlier this month:

  • A $1.3 billion initiative from the San Antonio, Texas, school district, the largest school bond in the city’s history, that includes $90 million to help pay for high-speed internet, student computers, interactive smartboards, and new audio systems for public school classrooms.
  • The largest school bond initiative in Texas history, from the Dallas Independent School District, whose voters approved $3.2 billion for school construction and $270 million in technology upgrades, but rejected proposals to issue new debt to renovate athletic stadiums and performing arts facilities.
  • A mammoth $7 billion bond issue by the Los Angeles Unified School District, including $405 million to “furnish and equip schools with 21st century learning technologies and upgrade/install technology infrastructure, information systems, hardware, and software.”

School-finance experts have long questioned the wisdom of districts issuing long-term debt to fund the purchase of devices and other equipment that have a short shelf life. Some school-technology leaders also worry that restrictive language in bond measures may leave districts without the flexibility to adapt as circumstances change and new technologies become available.

But Grayson Nichols, a bond analyst at Moody’s, said districts have adapted by shortening the repayment term on debt for school technology to match the life cycle of the technology being purchased. And with poor districts poised to lose millions in state funding due to the coronavirus recession, some see bonds as an appealing option to keep money flowing for essential needs, especially with interest rates at historic lows.

In the 49,000-student San Antonio school system, Chief Information Officer Kenneth Thompson said his district’s new funding steam will be essential to meet long-term student needs, as well as continue remote learning through at least the current school year.

“This is going to position us for the remainder of this pandemic,” Thompson said. “But it’s also about sustainability.”

Districts Update Their Plans

Some school districts around the country are using already-approved bond money to help pay for new technology to ease the burdens of remote learning.

Last February, for example, voters in Oklahoma’s 19,000-student Putnam City School District passed a $133 million bond measure, the largest in the city’s history. Some of that money is being used to refresh the devices already distributed to each of the district’s elementary and middle school students, as well as to put 1-to-1 computing programs in the local high schools.

And back in 2014, New York state passed the $2 billion Smart Schools Bond Act to help schools upgrade their classroom technology and broadband infrastructure. More than $90 million from that fund was approved in July for 148 different district plans. A little over half of the newly released money will go to classroom technology, while another $25 million was earmarked for “high-tech security” (a spending bucket that has sparked past fights over the use of facial recognition systems in New York schools.)

As for bond measures that voters approved Nov. 3, planning began months or even years before schools closed their physical buildings in March to help slow the spread of COVID-19. But some districts changed the specifics of their pitches to voters to reflect the new reality of widespread remote and hybrid instruction.

In San Antonio, for example, Thompson said his district added new audio systems from a company called Swivl into its plan in order to ensure that students following live lessons remotely via their devices at home can hear as their teachers move around the classroom.

“The pandemic has brought some additional instructional components that we had not originally planned for,” he said.

Reasons for Concern

Comprehensive empirical data on November bond measures is hard to come by, but anecdotally, voters across the country seemed open to taking on new bond debt for new school technology.

In Dallas, for example, 62 percent of voters balked at a proposal to spend millions on renovating school stadiums, but 52 percent voted in favor of a separate proposition to spend $270 on school technology improvements.

In Manchester, N.H., meanwhile, the mayor and local aldermen in August shot down the district’s request for new construction bonds, but overwhelmingly supported a bond request for technology improvements.

In California, meanwhile, roughly two-thirds of the 60 district bond measures on the ballot passed, according to an analysis by the news outlet EdSource. Several of those included big line items for school technology, such as Measure RR in Los Angeles. It featured hundreds of millions of dollars for new computers and other tech investments and passed with 71 percent of the vote.

“The students are the real winners today,” Los Angeles schools superintendent Austin Beutner said in a post-election statement. “Because of voter support, and the support of labor, business, and community leaders, more students will get access to safe and updated schools and learning technology.”

But as much as any place in the country, Los Angeles highlights the potential pitfalls associated with bond-funded technology measures. In 2015, the district green-lighted a half-billion-dollar plan to give every student an iPad, an effort that ended in multiple resignations by senior staff, as well as investigations by the FBI and the Security and Exchange Commission (no criminal charges were ultimately filed.)

Douglas Levin, the president of the consulting group EdTech Strategies and the former head of the State Educational Technology Directors Association, cautioned that bond programs can lock districts into suboptimal or even obsolete technology. The interest associated with bond debt can also add millions to an initiative’s price tag, as can unanticipated costs for things like technical support, cybersecurity, and staff training.

“There is good reason to be skeptical,” said Levin, who argued that many technology-related expenditures should be part of districts’ routine operational costs.

Another consideration: If districts are considering bonded debt to pay for technology, they need to be mindful of not just their future technology costs, but also their total debt limit and their ongoing capital expenses, said Brian O’Keefe, the assistant superintendent of finance for Arbor Parks School District 145 in Oak Forest, Ill.

“By issuing debt [for technology] today, you could inhibit yourself from building a new school or new addition in the future,” O’Keefe said.

Image: Getty

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.