Contradicting earlier claims, Los Angeles school district officials said Tuesday that their right to use English and math curriculum installed on district iPads expires after three years.
At market rates, buying a new license for the curriculum would cost $50 to $100 each year per iPad, an additional cost that could surpass $60 million annually. The expense would add to the price tag of the $1-billion effort to provide a tablet to every teacher and student in the nation's second-largest school system.
The iPad program had a delayed and troubled rollout. Early on, the district ordered them kept at schools after students bypassed security filters so they could freely browse the Internet. Another issue has been the release of conflicting, misleading or incomplete information. Such an issue arose Tuesday.
At previous meetings, district staff had asserted that the curriculum would belong permanently to the L.A. Unified School District. It would not be updated after three years but would last as long as the iPads themselves.
Including the curriculum, district officials had said, was one aspect of the contract that made the purchase — at $768 per device — a bargain.
But a different explanation emerged at an evening meeting of a district technology committee meeting chaired by school board member Monica Ratliff.
"We'll need to purchase licenses after three years if we want to continue to use the content," said Hugh Tucker, deputy director of facilities contracts.
"OK, stop right there," Ratliff interrupted. "At the end of three years, that content is going to disappear or we're going to be violating something by attempting to use this content?"
"I believe that to be correct," Tucker said.
Ratliff wanted to know why it was not like purchasing software, which you own and can use until it becomes outdated.
The better analogy was to satellite radio, which you never own and for which you pay a recurring fee, said Matt Hill, the district's chief strategy officer.
The committee then learned that the three-year clock started July 16, the date of the contract. So far, the curriculum, which is provided by Pearson, is supplemental and has not been supplied in its entirely.
District officials said Pearson is not late, and that this year was always intended as a transition period.
But L.A. Unified is nonetheless paying for a curriculum that it is phasing in. Under the current rollout schedule, thousands of students would not receive iPads until late 2015, about six months before the license expires.
As recently as Nov. 5, a staff presentation noted only that the Pearson curriculum would need to be "refreshed" after three years.
And Ratliff had asked directly about the curriculum during an Oct. 22 meeting.
"Is the curriculum being rented, and will the curriculum be deleted from the devices upon contract expiration?" she had asked. "I believe you answered at the previous meeting that we will be able to keep the curriculum on the device."
"Right," said chief information officer Ronald Chandler, according to a meeting transcript.
"And that it is not being rented," said Ratliff.
"It's not being rented. What we do need to clarify is updates to the curriculum," Chandler said.
The annual cost estimate for the curriculum — $25 to $50 per subject per year — is based on district figures, but also confirmed by vendors in the industry.
Another iPad meeting took place in the San Fernando Valley on Tuesday, where district staff explained and defended the project
But outside the Valley Academy of Arts and Sciences, about 15 teachers, parents and representatives from the teachers union rallied and sliced into an iPad-shaped cake while teachers and parents held aloft digits spelling out $1 billion.
A protester dressed as Marie Antoinette, and wearing a sash reading "Tamar Antoinette" urged onlookers to "let them eat iPads" in response to requests by protesters for more librarians, nurses and smaller class sizes.
The reference was to project supporter and board member Tamar Galatzan and was intended to question the district's priorities in spending so much for technology when campuses and students had other needs.
Victoria Casas, a teacher at Beachy Avenue Elementary School and a parent of two children in the district, said the program was unsustainable and that the district should steer money toward training and reducing class sizes.
"They quickly become obsolete," she said. "How can we sustain the budget for this — it's irresponsible."
(Most of the iPad funding is coming from school construction bonds that can't be spent on employee salaries or school supplies.)
But parent Heather Thompson defended the effort as being essential to providing what students need in terms of technology and academics.
"To have a device in the hands of every child has to be the standard," she said.