Newly installed Los Angeles schools Supt. Ramon Cortines said he opposes using construction bond money to pay for curriculum on student computers, raising new questions about the future of the system's controversial $1.3-billion technology project.
Using voter-approved bonds for curriculum rather than building and repairing schools has been a contentious element in the effort to provide every student, teacher and campus administrator with a computer. Critics and some officials harbor lingering concerns about its legality and wisdom, according to interviews and documents reviewed by The Times.
FOR THE RECORD:
LAUSD technology: In the Oct. 23 California section, a headline with an article about the views of new Los Angeles schools Supt. Ramon Cortines on using construction bond money to pay for technology erred in describing his stance. He did not say that such funds should not be used to pay for iPads. As the article noted, he is opposed to using the funds to pay for curriculum to be used on the student computers.
Cortines left no doubt about where he stands.
"I don't believe the curriculum should be paid for with bond funds, period," he said in an interview.
Cortines emphasized this week that he hadn't yet been fully briefed on the technology program. He said he would keep an open mind.
The iPads-for-all project was a signature initiative of his predecessor, John Deasy, who resigned under pressure last week. Deasy readily acknowledged that the project was an expensive draw from bond funds. But he said there was no other way to pay for what he called a civil rights imperative — to provide low-income students equal access to technology in the nation's second-largest school system.
The L.A. Unified Board of Education approved the iPad contract without opposition in June 2013.
The rollout last year at 47 schools encountered numerous problems. Students deleted a security filter so they could freely browse the Internet; many teachers felt poorly prepared to use the devices. Within months, the board decided to move more slowly, while also trying out other devices and curricula.
Still, by this fall, the district had purchased 109,000 iPads for $61 million; about 62,000 included a three-year license for the curriculum, adding about $200 to the cost of each.
In August, Deasy announced a new bidding process to take advantage of evolving technology and lower prices. Deasy said the move was unrelated to disclosures about close relationships he and his top deputy developed with Apple, which makes the iPad, and with Pearson, the curriculum provider.
In the wake of Deasy's departure, officials are reevaluating the former superintendent's policies and strategies, including his approach to technology and how to pay for it. Cortines, under contract through June, said he will not hesitate to take on any issue.
The legality of using bond funds for the iPad program has come up before.
From the start, the district's in-house attorneys have asserted that the funds can be used for computers and any software included on them.
There's broad agreement regarding the purchase of the devices. Bond experts interviewed by The Times said Proposition 39, which voters passed in 2000, clarified that bonds could be used for technology.
But there was another question: Could bond funds also be used to purchase curriculum for the computers?
Bond attorneys did not criticize L.A. Unified, a potential client, but did express general concerns.
Bill Kadi, a San Francisco attorney, said he wouldn't advise a district to use bond funds to buy textbooks. Instructional software, however, raises new questions "that haven't been adequately fleshed out," he said.
Such concerns were never fully addressed in the view of critics who said the iPad project was ramrodded through.
"The clear feeling we got was, 'We are going to do this and questions are not appreciated,' " said Barry Waite, a member of the Bond Oversight Committee, an advisory panel to the school board.
"We were concerned there were a lot of questions that needed to be answered," said Steve English, chairman of the bond panel.
Some of the committee's qualms were addressed in a September 2012 opinion from New York-based law firm Sidley Austin, which specializes in bonds. The outside lawyers affirmed the legality of major portions of the effort, but were silent on some key issues — including the purchase of curriculum and whether students could take home computers purchased with bond funds.
The bond oversight committee asked the district to obtain additional reassurance from Sidley Austin or other outside experts.
Instead, L.A. Unified in November 2013 provided an opinion stating that all elements of the program were legal. The analysis was signed by General Counsel David Holmquist and researched by his top aide, Gregory McNair, both of whom answered to Deasy.
In interviews, L.A. Unified officials likened the curriculum to software such as an operating system that allows a computer to function, or to books for a school library. Sidley Austin lawyers were consulted about the purchase of curriculum, even though they did not provide a written opinion, McNair said.
"We are certain, based upon our consultations, that Pearson is considered software and that we can purchase software with bond funds," McNair said. "The content of the software seems to me in this case not to be all that relevant."
The issue goes beyond legality, according to former La Cañada Unified Supt. Jim Davis, who said that bond money should be spent for school construction projects.
"The use of bond money for any kind of computer technology that has a short life … is a bad idea and an unwise business decision," said Davis, who works as a consultant to school districts.
The Bond Oversight Committee eventually endorsed the technology effort, concluding that enough of its questions had been addressed.
But the matter came up again in an August report, based on a yearlong review, by school board member Monica Ratliff.
Among other things, Ratliff's report stated that the purchases endorsed by the attorneys "did not necessarily include any curriculum."
The debate over spending school construction bonds for technology has been going on in districts "up and down the state," said Brian Carver, an assistant professor at the UC Berkeley School of Information and a member of the board of directors of the California League of Bond Oversight Committees.
Given L.A. Unified's $40-billion backlog of vital construction and modernization projects, Cortines said it would be difficult for him to justify the use of relatively scarce bond funds for computer-based curriculum.
"We have new schools and we have schools that are 50 to 100 years old," Cortines said. "I want to provide equity between the newer and older schools and I also think that bond funds need to be used for repairs."