OETC Spotlight

Voters Say Yes to EdTech

Across Oregon and Washington, approved bonds and levies give CIOs new opportunities

School districts across Oregon and Washington have much to be grateful for this Thanksgiving, as voters overwhelmingly approved bonds and levies on November’s ballot.

In Oregon, voters approved 14 of the 17 bonds and levies on the ballot, ranging from $2.1 million for upgrades to the 150-student Alsea School District’s campus to $1.2 billion for the nearly 50,000 students at Portland Public.

Up in Washington State, it appears that nearly every school bond and levy on the ballot was passed, from $600,000 for Grand Coulee School District to offset uncertainty in state funding up to a two-year, $32.5-million technology levy for Highline Public Schools.

“Instead of cables, we put in a conduit going to the projectors and we can run whatever cable we need in the future in those. USB-C, USB-K?” — Dr. Luke Neff, Director of Strategic Partnerships at Newberg SD

Mark Finstrom, CTO of Highline, has some big plans.

“We are planning to build a 5G LTE network, a business services HR software refresh and purchase interactive technology for the classroom — large screen displays and interactive tools,” he said. “We’re building interconnectivity between applications, so we’ve got data warehousing, student info data and mapping software to enhance, as well. Our personalized learning department will be providing a lot of training for staff.”

Of the 5G project, he said, “We have a project currently underway, and are in the final stages of a 10GB multidirectional network capable of up to 100GB. This will be the backbone of our 5G network. We’ve got a figure out, where we’re going to mount antennae and repeaters, locations — inside the building or outside the building, on light poles at the school or fields, and then we need to run it all back through our district.”

Newberg School District passed its own $141-million bond, and Dr. Luke Neff, Director of Strategic Partnerships, could not be more pleased.

“I am just so grateful to get to live and work in a community that supports public education and helping our kids,” he said. “On a personal note, it’s a huge relief. I’m tired of constantly writing grants to try to piece together the funding for the things we need. Comprehensive Distance Learning has really exposed the fact that we have not been able to have a sustainable funding cycle for staff and student technology.”

While the bulk of the money is earmarked for a new elementary school, an overhaul of CTE spaces, a school health center and more, there are quite a few fun tech bits.

“We’re making improvements ‘from soup to nuts’ — from the fiber coming in to the end user devices, fiber runs, server room updates, redundant firewalls, data closet security, switches, data drops, WAPs, PA systems, bell systems, digital clocks, wall cabling, security cameras, radios, all the way down to a staff device refresh and a refresh of our devices for our youngest learners,” he said, adding that some of these improvements are long overdue.

“Our high school bell system, for example is still not Y2K compliant — an administrator at the high school has to go into a data closet everyday to reset it by hand to the right schedule. That’s embarrassing. But it’s also expensive to fix, and now we can do that.”

He said a big focus is “future proofing” — how can they make changes now even as they know the technology will go through new iterations so fast?

“Take wall cabling,” he said. “Our buildings are wired for VGA, and those wall cables are failing rapidly. We’ve tried three or four different digital solutions at this point, and all of them failed too often and too quickly … so basically, instead of cables, we put in a conduit going to the projectors and we can run whatever cable we need in the future in those. USB-C, USB-K? That’s an example of how we’re trying to plan our projects in a way that provides solutions now and meets the needs of whatever future we live in.”

At Portland Public Schools, CTO Don Wolff is looking at $128.2 million earmarked for tech out of the massive $1.2-billion bond that voters passed 75-25.

“When I walked into PPS, I was inheriting at least a decade — maybe 15 years — of technical debt,” he said, adding that he’s broken the needs into distinct buckets of work.

First, there’s the 1:1 rollout for grades 3-12, and 2:1 for PK-grade 2. There’s a big teacher device replacement as they’re finding the Chromebooks they deployed in 2019 are not up to the task of CDL. They will be replaced in January with PixelBooks GOs.

“It’s unbelievable support for students and the schools. I could not be happier with how the community stood up and supported this bond.” — Don Wolff, CTO of Portland Public Schools

“We’re moving toward the Chrome OS as our primary OS in the district for ease of deployment and application support, maintenance, support, and the added security benefits a stateless OS provides,” he said, adding that support for a Windows machine takes, on average, 90 minutes from receipt to delivery, versus 14 minutes for Chrome OS devices.

“The upside with CDL is that we’ve jumped five years ahead of where we would have been if we’d stayed in brick and mortar and ran traditional 1:1 deployments and adoptions” he said. “The downside is we’ve got classroom modernization needs, which will be addressed with this bond. Only about 33% of our schools have instructional wireless with no dead spots, and we have around 100 buildings.”

Then, there’s the technical:

“We need to upgrade both our core and edge switching infrastructure, which hasn’t had the funding in the past to be on regular maintenance and upgrade schedules. We have older networking infrastructure in our buildings that needs addressing as well,” he said.

“Our fiber interconnects need to be transitioned to single-mode fiber, which will provide 10GB backbone speeds between closets. We need to upgrade and replace much of our datacenter hardware, replace our entire phone system and increase our internal and external security posture. Turns out we have 50,000 hostiles on the inside of our network as well,” he said, laughing.

But one of the biggest goals they’re looking to in the future is the possibility of helping to provide low or no-cost internet for families and students. Pilot programs are already being discussed for certain parts of the city.

“I am wildly excited and optimistic,” he said. “I am so proud of the people in the city of Portland — there was overwhelming support for this bond by 75% of the voters in the middle of this pandemic. It’s unbelievable support for students and the schools. I could not be happier with how the community stood up and supported this bond.”

Elsewhere in Oregon

  • Alsea School District passed a $2.1m bond to upgrade their school campus, adding new CTE space. They received a state matching grant.
  • Ashland renewed a levy expected to bring in about $450,000 per year over the next five years for asbestos removal, maintenance, textbooks and new laptops and laptop batteries.
  • Bandon School District passed a $4m bond that will be used to replace three roofs to stop leaks and replace an HVAC system. They received a state matching grant.
  • Bethel School District passed a $99.3 million bond to replace Cascade Middle school, open a new Vocational Education Center at Willamette High School and add vocational ed classrooms at Kalapuya High School, plus update computers, increase safety and covered play areas for elementary schools. They will receive a matching state grant.
  • Corbett School District passed a $4m bond (and recieved a $3.88m matching grant) which will be used to relocate the middle school, roof repairs, renovations to their CTE and seismic retrofits.
  • Enterprise School District passed a $4m bond (and will receive $4m in matching state grant) to update facilities including roofs, HVAC and ADA compliance, install security systems and a vestibule and modernize student spaces.
  • Perrydale School District passed a $3m bond to construct instructional spaces and a multipurpose facility, renovate and improve security. They will receive matching state funds.
  • Pilot Rock School District passed an $8m bond to make extensive gym renovations, replace the roof, add security, a wood, metal and leatherworking area, remodel science labs and more. They will receive matching state funds of $4m.
  • Redmond School District passed a $27.5m bond to address critical health, safety and security upgrades in all of the district’s schools, along with technology and infrastructure improvements. They will receive $7.6m in matching state funding.
  • Riverdale School District renewed their five-year levy, which keeps current stuffing levels, supports programs, goes toward the purchase of technology and instructional supplies and addresses security and maintenance.
  • Seaside School District renewed their levy of $0.52 per $1,000 in assessed value.
  • South Wasco County passed a $4m bond. They will receive matching state funds.

Elsewhere in Washington

  • Asotin School District passed two levies, one operational and one capital, that will bring in between $1.3 and $1.4 million per year over the next four years. The general education levy funds athletics, a portion of salaries and benefits, extended contracts for career and technical education staff, counselors, club advisers and substitutes for classified staff, while the capital levy will go toward technology, particularly device refreshes, the district’s roof, boilers, elevators and science labs.
  • Eastmont School District passed a four-year levy that will bring between $11 and $12.8 million each of the next four years, plus $2.1m in Local Effort Assistance Funding from the state, to be used on operations, technology, curriculum, safety and school security.
  • Ferndale School District will bring in $16.8 million over the next two years, which pays for staffing, technology, programs and extracurricular activities such as athletics, drama and music.
  • Grand Coulee passed a levy for just over $300,000 to patch budget holes and keep current levels of staffing.
  • La Crosse School District passed a replacement capital levy.
  • McCleary School District passed a replacement educational programs and operations levy.
  • Port Angeles School District passed a $5.6m levy for staff, including counselors, nurses and music. There is also levy equalization money from the state, some of which earmarked for technology hardware, particularly a replacement budget for Chromebooks.
  • Puyallup passed a two-year $32 million levy for teacher salaries, extracurricular programs, mental health supports and overdue campus maintenance.
  • Stevenson Carson School District passed a three-year replacement enrichment levy to prevent cuts to staff, extracurriculars and technology; it will bring between $2m and $2.3m over each of the next three years.
  • Steptoe School District passed their Educational Programs and Operation Levy, with a vote of 140 yes to 39 no.
  • Warden School District passed a two-year Replacement Educational Programs and Operations Levy, which will put about $1.1m per year towards athletics, FFA, band, cheer, music and field trips. They will also receive around $836,000 in state funding.

How do bonds and levies work?

Oregon and Washington do school funding a little bit differently. In each case, the state provides way, way less money than the schools need, so options for funding capital expense (think a new building, or renovations, a new roof — anything other than the strict day-to-day operational budget) are put to voters quite regularly.

In Oregon, nearly all funding for new construction and major facility remodels comes from bonds. All new schools are financed via bond — it would be virtually impossible for a school district to save up enough to pay for a new school outright. Current facilities also require upkeep, and schools need way more maintenance than even a dedicated crew can provide.

Bonds provide money up front, though they must be paid back, with interest, over a period of years (often 10 to 30). They are slowly paid back with increases in property taxes; in the case of a large bond, this could cost the average homeowner between $15 and $40 per month, although smaller bonds of course have a much smaller impact.

Up in Washington, levies are a much more common funding mechanism, with bonds being reserved for very long-term projects. As one school district site put it, “Bonds are for buildings; levies are for learning.”

“People came up with these plans on how to fund schools 180 years ago, and we don’t go back and fix things when they’re clearly broken.” — Allen Miedema, Executive Director for Technology at Northshore School District

Executive Director for Technology at Northshore School District Allen Miedema is a bit of an accidental authority on the process, and explained more about funding models.

Levies provide the money slowly but monthly, with big chunks coming during tax times — for example, Allen said, Northshore’s current bond pays about $7 million each April and October but maybe only around $100,000 coming in during other months.

“In Washington, there are some really gross disparities between who can run a levy and have some hope for success, and who can’t,” he said, adding that it’s not just a haves vs. have nots — since levy collections are based on property taxes, the presence of a big mall or business area can drive the cost to homeowners way down, whereas towns that are mostly residential see much higher rates.

It also, he said, punishes smaller districts and less affluent districts, where you have to tax at a much higher rate to get similar money to places where the average home price is much, much higher.

“In rural areas where things aren’t as built up, maybe I have 40 acres and I’m going to pay this huge tax rate so the kids can have the same things that suburban districts do, but those suburban property owners are going to pay a quarter or even a tenth of what I’m paying. People came up with these plans on how to fund schools 180 years ago, and we don’t go back and fix things when they’re clearly broken. The only thing worse might be how you pay for schools in Oregon.”