Is a Cisco Model 3600 Wireless Access Point a school “capital project to expand high speed broadband or wireless internet connectivity,” or “learning technology hardware for schools, classrooms, and student use?”
Interesting (or comprehensible!) to a non-IT professional – probably not. But that, and the technical and legal classification of many other hardware expenses was, for yeshivos and nonpublic schools, the $25 million dollar question. Now that question has, finally, gained some clarity.
On November 4, 2014, New York voters approved the Smart Schools Bond Act (SSBA). The SSBA authorized a one-time, $2 billion investment by NYS to improve education in public schools, including a limited allocation for certain technology items for long-term loan to nonpublic schools. By law, whether nonpublic schools are eligible for the value of a certain device depends on its category of technology, which may be subject to interpretation.
But nonpublic school advocacy groups did not know that in early 2016, when the eligibility amounts for nonpublic schools began to surface in draft district plans. Agudath Israel of America, together with its advocacy coalition partners, including Teach NYS, the Jewish Education Project, the Archdiocese of NY, and others, noticed that the numbers seemed suspiciously low. But its explanation was elusive.
That’s where our friend, the Cisco Model 3600, comes in.
After an exhaustive review of New York City’s plan, and a crash-course on the vagaries of wireless access points; wireless controllers; procon servers; core MDF switch integrators; and other devices, Agudath Israel attorneys began to understand. As Avrohom Weinstock, Esq., chief of staff and associate director of education, put it, “The puzzling figures began to make sense after carefully tracking where the money was being spent, how each device was being classified, and attaining a deeper understanding of how the law dictates it ought to be shared with nonpublic schools.”
In fact, in an April 2016 brief on the topic, Agudath Israel uncovered that a significant portion of the hardware purchases had been misclassified to a category which denied nonpublic school use. Further, the Agudah brief showed that the law allows these items to be used by nonpublic schools, and it is logically untenable to bifurcate the use of items and the calculation of the dollars available for that use.
The nail in the coffin came from a later Agudath Israel review of the plans of the nearly 1,000 NYS school districts. In that review, the Agudah conclusively demonstrated that some districts in fact classified these same devices correctly, and computed them in the nonpublic school allowance. Clearly, a disparately applied rule of classification across the state could not be legally correct.
But the complex, technical nature of the topic made advocacy in overturning the high-stakes legal concern even more challenging. Over a two-year period, Agudath Israel engaged in nearly a dozen meetings with New York City and New York State officials at the highest levels to discuss the matter. Exemplifying the challenge in understanding the issue, in one meeting it was suggested that these devices did not meet the criteria of use by nonpublic schools because they were too large to allow loan to nonpublic schools. Mr. Weinstock, undeterred, brought a wireless access point to the meeting and withdrew it from his small attaché case, quickly defeating that argument.
After significant learning on both sides of the table, the New York State legislature passed Chapters 54 and 59 in the 2017-2018 Enacted Budget, to explicitly include the misclassified devices for nonpublic schools for districts whose plans had not yet been submitted. Further, the new law allocated an additional $25 million, earmarked to nonpublic schools, to compensate those schools in districts whose plans had already been approved. Districts that had initially calculated the devices correctly, or whose plans did not include such devices, will see no change. But others, specifically in New York City, will see a significant increase in the amounts available compared to that first contemplated.
On June 4, 2018, the Smart School Review Board ratified detailed Guidance of this legal change. As this matter is still developing, implementation will not occur immediately, and the Agudah continues to actively pursue this matter.
“Clearly, yeshiva and other nonpublic school students should receive the share of the SSBA that the law intended and that nonpublic school parental tax dollars are supporting,” said Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel, “and we are grateful for this change.”
Agudath Israel recognizes its advocacy partners and various officials it worked with throughout the process, including NYS Budget Director, Robert Mujica; former Secretary to the Governor, Bill Mulrow; former NYS Deputy Secretary of Education, Jere Hochman; NYS Assistant Counsel to Governor Cuomo, Terry Pratt; and Special Assistant for Community Affairs at NYS Executive Chamber, David Lobl, for their receptivity and leadership on this issue. Agudath Israel also recognizes Senate Majority Leader, John Flanagan, and former Senate Majority Counsel, Elizabeth Garvey, for their unflagging support on this and so many nonpublic school issues on behalf of our community.