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LAUSD report faults iPad bidding

EducationLos Angeles Unified School DistrictApple iPadJohn DeasyEthics
An LAUSD report says the district's iPad program was beset by inadequate planning and flawed bidding process
An L.A. Unified report raises questions about whether the iPad bidding process was fair

The groundbreaking effort to provide an iPad to every Los Angeles student, teacher and school administrator was beset by inadequate planning, a lack of transparency and a flawed bidding process, according to the draft of an internal school district report obtained by The Times.

The bidding process — and events leading up to it — were singled out for particular criticism. The report concludes that the district needlessly limited its options on price and product, and raises questions about whether the process was fair.

The much-anticipated analysis is drawn from public and closed meetings held over 10 months by a committee chaired by school board member Monica Ratliff. That panel, composed of parents, employee representatives and district officials, heard presentations, posed questions and gathered documents from experts and officials. Ratliff directed that the report remain confidential until committee members could provide input.

The Times obtained it from sources who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to release it.

The committee review stops short of accusing anyone of wrongdoing, but offers a carefully worded rebuke of the $1-billion-plus technology effort in the nation's second-largest school system.

While the report applauds the goals and potential benefits of the technology push, it details major problems in how the effort was carried out.

Among the findings:

•The initial rules for winning the contract appeared to be tailored to the products of the eventual winners — Apple and Pearson — rather than to demonstrated district needs.

•Key changes to the bidding rules were made after most of the competition had been eliminated under the original specifications.

•Past comments or associations with vendors, including by L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy, created an appearance of conflict even if no ethics rules were violated.

Last year's iPad rollout at 47 schools suffered a series of setbacks. In one, students at three campuses deleted security filters so they could browse the Internet — prompting officials to prohibit the iPads' use outside of school.

Still, many students and teachers expressed excitement about using the $768 devices and the opportunities they might offer.

Both the devices and the curriculum on them have been paid for with voter-

approved school construction bonds.

While the report is wide-ranging, it focuses heavily on the bidding that resulted in a $30-million initial contract for Apple in June 2013. That work was expected to expand districtwide by the end of 2014, but officials changed the plan after the rollout, pushing the timetable back and testing to see if laptops might be better for older students.

The report suggests that from the beginning district officials, including Deasy, made decisions that created an appearance of impropriety, clouding good intentions.

The superintendent recused himself from the bidding process because he owned Apple stock, which he has since sold. But he seemed to signal where his preferences lay in a promotional video filmed for Apple in December 2011, as a school pilot program using only iPads was set to start.

"We had decided to adopt iPad technology, as we were trying to provide ways for increasing student engagements," Deasy said in the spot.

Deasy said Thursday he could not comment on issues raised in the report until he had read it; he added that he has not received a copy.

In an interview last month, Deasy stressed his conviction "that every youth regardless of ZIP Code will have access to technology."

"I wanted this to happen as quickly as possible," he said.

The bidding process began in March 2013. The report questioned specifications for the bidding that seemed to describe the iPad without justifying why its particular features were necessary.

The device, for example, had to have at least a "10-inch multi-touch display."

"There is a danger that an appearance may be created that such specification was included for an improper anti-competitive purpose," the report says.

Other school districts have opted for less expensive devices, yet L.A. Unified was hardly alone in falling for the iPad, which dominates the tablet market in public schools.

The selection of Pearson to provide the online curriculum aroused similar controversy.

The report noted that the district insisted on a new curriculum that would align with recently approved learning goals adopted by California and most other states, known as Common Core. No one wanted a recycled curriculum masked by a fresh label.

Given the short time frame, only a major corporate player could promise to deliver a full new curriculum. But during the bidding, neither Pearson nor several other vendors had such a product to submit. The district based its decision on a small number of sample lessons, the report says.

The result was that the district cut itself off from vendors who had high-quality existing or adaptable materials. Going with them could have proved much less expensive and also would have permitted a more complete review of the product, the report suggests.

Pearson attracted extra scrutiny because Jaime Aquino, head of instruction at L.A. Unified at the time, had been an executive at a Pearson affiliate until he joined the district in July 2011.

District ethics rules required Aquino to refrain from any involvement in a Pearson contract for a year. But by the start of 2013, he was on the district's executive committee that oversaw the bidding process, in which his former employer had much to gain.

In testimony to Ratliff's committee, a midlevel district official defended Aquino's participation, insisting that no scoring was revised at the request of Aquino or the executive committee.

Aquino left the district at the end of last year, asserting that the school board was micromanaging the work of senior staff. He has declined interview requests.

Pearson products are ubiquitous across the education sector, but some of its business practices have come under fire. Last December, Pearson agreed to pay $7.7 million to New York state to settle allegations that its charitable foundation illegally drummed up business on behalf of the for-profit wing.

The foundation also was developing key connections in L.A. Unified. In July 2012, it subsidized a conference in Palm Desert on the new state learning goals, according to documents provided in response to a public records request by The Times.

L.A. Unified paid a reduced fee of $1,000 each for 50 employees to participate at no cost to them. Each also received an iPad "for district use."

When questioned by Ratliff's committee about the propriety of letting Pearson subsidize the event for L.A. Unified employees, district officials said it occurred before the bidding process.

Separately, Pearson was collaborating with the district in developing curricular materials, according to records reviewed by The Times. Some of the district staff involved later would be part of the teams evaluating bidders for the computer/curriculum contract.

In interviews, district staff said it wasn't unusual for L.A. Unified to work with private companies in developing materials or testing devices.

Officials amended the bidding rules after the process began, further creating a possible appearance of unfairness.

In June 2013, the school board had a choice of three finalists: All included a device paired with a curriculum. All three used Pearson. Two were for iPads, from different vendors.

District staff asserted that the Apple/Pearson bid was both the lowest in price and highest in quality.

The board approved the recommended deal with little discussion.

"An inherent risk in making such an eleventh hour change in specifications — after the field has already been whittled down to three finalists — is that it opens the door to the appearance of manipulation," the report states.

Later, officials told Ratliff's committee and The Times that the winnowing process was in line with legal standards, with the goal of getting a quality product at the best possible price.

The Los Angeles County district attorney's office reviewed a report by the district's inspector general on the bidding process and determined that no criminal charges were warranted.

howard.blume@latimes.com

Twitter: @howardblume

Times staff writer Joe Mozingo contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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EducationLos Angeles Unified School DistrictApple iPadJohn DeasyEthics
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