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Calls grow for wider inquiry into bidding on L.A. Unified iPad project

Emails spark calls for a broader inquiry into bidding for iPad project at L.A. Unified

A day after Los Angeles Unified abruptly suspended the contract for its controversial iPad project, there were growing calls for a more thorough investigation into whether the bidding process for the $1-billion program was improperly handled.

The district concluded an investigation earlier this year, but L.A. Unified officials on Tuesday acknowledged the inquiry did not examine early relationships between district officials and the executives from the companies that won the bidding.

Officials and critics of the project are seeking a wider investigation after the release of emails in which former Deputy Supt. Jaime Aquino appeared to be working with Pearson executives to develop a strategy to make sure the company had the winning low bid.

Pearson joined with Apple to provide curriculum on the iPads, which were to be distributed to every student, teacher and campus administrator in the nation's second-largest school system.

L.A. Unified Supt. John Deasy and others said the earlier inquiry, by the inspector general of the L.A. Unified School District, cleared officials of any wrongdoing or ethics violations related to the contract. A report from that investigation was reviewed by the district attorney's office, which concluded that no criminal charges were warranted. The district attorney's office said Tuesday that it has not reopened its review.

Deasy has defended the bidding process as proper and added that he and his staff talked to vendors in pursuit of good deals and good products. The focus on Aquino, who worked for a Pearson affiliate before his hiring at L.A. Unified, sharpened Tuesday, when General Counsel David Holmquist confirmed that the district was looking into whether he had violated ethics rules.

Those ethics rules required Aquino to avoid dealing with Pearson contracts for a year. But he sent emails to executives with the international education-services firm before the end of his first year with L.A. Unified.

"I believe we would have to make sure that your bid is the lowest one," Aquino wrote to Pearson executives in one email, dated May 24, 2012.

"The Aquino email is the smoking gun. Even if no laws were broken, the appearances are absolutely horrible," said Dan Schnur, director of the USC Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics. "It's hard to interpret what Aquino said in any other way than that he wanted to fix the bid process before it even got started."

Aquino has not responded to requests for interviews.

Deasy has said he did not participate in writing the specifications, constructing the bidding process or selecting the winners.

Alex Caputo-Pearl, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, called on prosecutors to take another look at the bidding process. The union also urged Deasy to publicly explain his role in awarding the contract to Apple.

"We shouldn't have cozy relationships with multibillion-dollar entities," Caputo-Pearl said. "We need to be building relationships and building the public trust with parents and educators."

Further details of what went on before the formal bidding process began are expected if a new investigation is opened.

Ken Bramlett, the district's inspector general, said he was prepared to launch a broader inquiry if the school board requests one.

Board member Steve Zimmer said he intended to support a wide-ranging inquiry.

"I would be an affirmative vote to make sure every part of this is investigated," Zimmer said. "The board has a very clear obligation and responsibility. We are accountable and responsible for the integrity of these processes."

In an interview Tuesday with The Times, Bramlett said his previous inquiry examined only the formal bidding process, which began in March 2013.

Emails disclosed by L.A. Unified, under the Public Records Act, have raised questions about events and communications that took place earlier, such as the Aquino correspondence with Pearson.

Deasy also participated with Aquino and Pearson in the email exchanges, 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."

The next day, Deasy sent a memo to board members saying he intended to suspend future purchases using the iPad contract and relaunch the bidding process. He said his decision was prompted by questions about the previous contract and the need to examine how well the iPad and other devices are working in the classroom and on new online state standardized tests.

Adding to the pressure on Deasy was the draft of a critical report compiled by board member Monica Ratliff and her staff, based on meetings, interviews and documents reviewed by the technology committee she chaired. The Times obtained a copy of the draft, which was presented publicly to the board Tuesday evening. She said the report represented her views alone but that she would append comments from others. Deasy was among those receiving the report for the first time.

To date, the district has spent $61 million on the Apple contract. Under it, iPads will be available to all students at 58 schools, fewer than 10% of L.A. Unified campuses.

The district has purchased an additional 47,000 iPads to use on state tests. These devices don't include the Pearson curriculum but it can be added later at additional cost.

Even before the contract suspension, officials had moved away from exclusive use of the Apple/Pearson contract. Earlier this year, the Board of Education approved a trial of several brands of laptops with different curriculum options, including Pearson. That trial will cost up to $40 million and provide about 18,000 devices for seven campuses.

Board member Zimmer said he would support the public release of the report from the earlier investigation, provided that any necessarily confidential material was redacted. Ratliff also called for as much in the committee report.

The inspector general's review has been classified as confidential — Deasy threatened to discipline anyone who released any information from it. But four votes from the seven-member board would be enough to make the report public, said Holmquist, the top attorney for L.A. Unified.

Some said the iPad crisis presented a key opportunity to create a better process to decide the next steps for L.A. Unified's technology program.

"We view this moment as an opportunity to establish the sort of reflective and inclusive policy process that would have been helpful to have at the start," said John Rogers, a UCLA education professor. "The rush and lack of meaningful public dialogue did not serve the district well."

He added, however, that Deasy and the district were under pressure from federal and state officials to take "rapid actions" to roll out a technology program that could be used with new learning standards known as Common Core and related online tests.

The new bidding process should be completed by spring, Deasy told KCRW radio Tuesday. He said he would invite a committee of students, teachers, administrators and technology experts to rewrite the bid specifications and pledged to make the process "as transparent as absolutely possible," with public and media witnesses.

At Tuesday's meeting, the board was not scheduled to discuss the Apple/Pearson deal, but it was to take action on a contract with Aquino's new employer, New Teacher Center, which has been working with L.A. Unified since before Aquino joined the firm. The contract failed to pass.

Twitter: @howardblume

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Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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