Los Angeles schools Supt. John Deasy and his chief deputy developed a special relationship with executives from the companies that won a key technology contract, records show, raising new questions about the bidding process in a $1-billion effort to provide a computer to every student in the nation's second-largest school system.
This collaboration between top L.A. Unified officials and those from tech giant Apple Inc. and Pearson, detailed in public records, underscores findings from an internal school district report, which warned that officials' actions could have created an impression of unfairness in the bidding.
It appears that the officials began discussing the school system's effort to supply students computers equipped with online curriculum at least two years before the contract was approved.
In one email, from May 24, 2012, then-Deputy Supt. Jaime Aquino seems to strategize with higher-ups from Pearson, an international education-services company, on how to ensure that it got the job.
"I believe we would have to make sure that your bid is the lowest one," wrote Aquino, who was an executive with a Pearson affiliate before joining L.A. Unified.
Deasy was one of the last to participate in that email exchange and made his comments after Aquino's, which covered several topics.
"Understand your points and we need to work together on this quickly," Deasy wrote. "I want to not loose [sic] an amazing opportunity and fully recognize our current limits."
On Sunday, Deasy said that the conversations were only about a "pilot program we did at several schools months before we decided to do a large-scale implementation. We did work closely on this pilot."
Deasy said he recalled that Aquino also offered another major vendor, Amplify Education Inc., a similar opportunity.
"Nothing was done in any inappropriate way whatsoever," the superintendent said.
In June 2013, the Board of Education approved a deal with the Apple/Pearson team after senior staff assured members that its proposal was both the least expensive and highest in quality. Pearson provided curriculum; Apple was to supply iPads.
Last year's iPad rollout at 47 schools was marred by several problems. Students at three campuses, for example, deleted security filters so they could browse the Internet — prompting officials to prohibit the use of the devices outside school. At times, officials also provided conflicting or incorrect answers about the project to a technology committee headed by school board member Monica Ratliff.
Ratliff and her senior staff compiled the draft report that criticized the bidding process; a copy was obtained by The Times last week.
Although the report makes no reference to the emails, it cites other statements and events that could be viewed as suggesting that Apple and Pearson had an inside track. These include a promotional video for the iPad filmed by Deasy more than a year before the bidding.
The new disclosures are fuel for critics who've speculated about whether the winners had an unfair advantage.
"It looked like Apple was positioned to be the choice," said Chiara Tellini, who represented Mind Research Institute, an Irvine company with a competing curriculum.
The contracting process has cleared one level of scrutiny, however. Months ago, it underwent a confidential review by the school district's inspector general. The Los Angeles County district attorney's office later reviewed that analysis and determined that no criminal charges were warranted.
In addition, no evidence has emerged from the released records proving that Deasy or Aquino tried to steer the outcome once the formal bidding period began. At that point, Deasy recused himself from being involved because he owned Apple stock, which he later sold.
"I was not involved in bid construction or bid decision or selection — as appropriate," Deasy said Sunday.
Well before that, however, Deasy and Aquino collaborated closely with executives from the companies.
In a May 22, 2012, email, then-Pearson Chief Executive Marjorie Scardino tells Deasy how much he impresses her.
"My mind was racing all weekend, and I was so impressed by your intelligent and committed and brave hold on the moving parts of the opportunity[.] I really can't wait to work with you. I would love to think that we could together do this so well that in your Sunday visits to prisons you won't see one person who has been educated in LAUSD; rather, you'll be meeting them as teachers, as contractors, as bankers (well, maybe not bankers), as poets all around the city."
And Pearson appeared to be directly involved with Aquino in developing L.A. Unified's five-year technology plan, which was approved by the Board of Education in May 2012.
A May 24 email from Pearson executive Judy Codding to Aquino and another senior official is titled "Creating a plan that merges Jaime's team's work and the proposed plan that emerged from 5/18/2012 meeting."
The email tackles the subject of how to pay for an online curriculum.
In it, Codding writes: "Jaime, I think everything you said makes sense to me. Yes everything would come out of the textbook fund. The price would be just as you and I discussed."
Elsewhere in the email chain, Aquino asks, "Will our board support this expenditure in midst of massive layoffs?"
Aquino also wrote, "I am not sure if legally we can enter into an agreement when we have not reviewed the final product for each grade and if the materials have not been approved by the state."
At this point Aquino wrote, "I believe we would have to make sure that your bid is the lowest one."
Eventually, the district used a scoring system based on factors other than price to eliminate most of the teams competing with Apple/Pearson.
The emails indicate that Deasy and Aquino also were involved in negotiating the cost of a potential contract with Pearson. These discussions would be a possible violation of ethics policy. These rules require district employees to wait a year before becoming involved in contracts with former private employers. At that point, Aquino had been at L.A. Unified less than a year since leaving Pearson.
Deasy acted as a liaison between the corporate giants. In a July 2, 2012, email to Pearson's Scardino, he updated his progress with Apple CEO Tim Cook.
"I wanted to let you know I have [sic] an excellent meeting with Tim at Apple last Friday. The meeting went very well and he was fully committed to being a partner. He said he and his team will take 5 days to present a price plan and scope of partnership. He was very excited about being a partner with Pearson. I think it would be good for you to loop back with him at this point. I will reach out to you again in a week[.]"
The courtship was mutual.
"Your participation last week in Cupertino was in one word historic," said Apple's sales representative Jaime Perez, after an August 2011 visit by Deasy and two top aides."
The follow-up included a December 2011 email to Deasy from John Couch, Apple's vice president of education.
"As we discussed, we have a shared vision for how we can use technology to engage students and to transform the learning process," Couch wrote. "LAUSD is already leading the way with iPad for your students."
Couch talked of scheduling a meeting in L.A. between Deasy and senior Apple executives about the company's vision for education.
"This would be the first time we will have shared these things with an educator or superintendent," Couch wrote. "And if you believe, as we do, that these things will help catapult us forward towards the vision we both share, we would also like to request interviewing you on video."
Around this time, which was well before the bidding period, Deasy and Aquino decided to use only the iPad for a pilot program involving 13 schools, project manager Joe Oliver said in an interview.
The emails, documents and other records were released in response to requests under the California Public Records Act that The Times first made nearly a year ago. The district initially released some of those records only to KPCC-FM (89.3), which on Friday was the first to report on some of these disclosures. The district then released the documents to The Times.
A spokesman for Pearson said Saturday that it was important to distinguish between the bidding period and the time before it. Pearson, a longtime district vendor, had been working with L.A. Unified as well as with other districts and experts to develop and try out curriculum, said Brandon Pinette. The later bidding process was separate — and understood by Pearson to be open and competitive to all.
Aquino, who left the school system at the end of last year, has turned down requests for interviews. Apple also has not responded.
Amid criticism and technical issues, L.A. Unified has slowed down its technology program. Officials also are trying out other devices and other curricula at some schools.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times