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Former L.A. schools official Aquino defends conduct over iPads contract

Former L.A. schools official Aquino says his remark about Pearson's low bid has been misunderstood

The former Los Angeles schools official at the center of scrutiny over the district's $1.3-billion iPad program said Thursday that he acted properly in his dealings with Pearson, the company that provided the curriculum on the devices.

Former Deputy Supt. Jaime Aquino worked for a Pearson subsidiary before joining the L.A. Unified School District. Critics have said that emails he exchanged with Pearson suggest that he was trying to steer the contract toward the multibillion-dollar, international firm. Aquino responded that his comments are being taken out of context.

Separately, the school district said it is looking into whether Aquino volated ethics rules in dealing at all with Pearson less than a year after he joined L.A. Unified.

Aquino, who left L.A. Unified at the end of last year, said that allegation is groundless as well. Aquino's comments to The Times were his first public attempt to address concerns that he may have acted inappropriately. 

“I don't have anything to hide,” Aquino said. “I did everything by the book and always sought legal counsel.”

L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy suspended new purchases of iPads on Monday in response to concerns about the earlier bidding process and other issues. The $30-million iPad contract, approved by the board in June 2013, initially was expected to expand to about $500 million, with another $500 million spent on upgrading wireless access at campuses. So far, the district has spent about $61 million to purchase about 62,000 iPads.

Last week that effort suffered two blows. First came the draft of a critical report, obtained by The Times, from board member Monica Ratliff, who chaired a committee overseeing technology issues. Then came the release of emails, through the California Public Records Act requests, showing that, before the bidding process began, Deasy and Aquino had developed a close relationship with Apple and Pearson, the winning team.

In one email, Aquino wrote to Pearson representatives:

“I believe we would have to make sure that your bid is the lowest one.”

Aquino said he was not trying to subvert the open bidding process. His intended meaning, he said, was to emphasize to Pearson the district's intention to choose the lowest bidder.

In the full email, sent on May 24, 2012, Aquino begins by expressing concerns about the cost of training 2,000 teachers who would then be available to work with their colleagues on the Pearson software. He goes on to express worries about whether the district’s bandwidth can handle every student using a computer for the 2013 school year.

He continues by weighing whether the district should have an open bidding process, which would be accomplished through a request for proposals, or RFP:

“Why would we issue an RFP? The board will probably will not [sic] support an RFP in a time of draconian budget reductions. I thought all costs would be charged against the digital curriculum, which would allow us to use textbook funds. We have no PD [Professional Development] funds to allocate for this purpose for next school year and I am positive we will not have support from the Board. In addition, 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.”

He added: “I believe we would have to make sure that your bid is the lowest one.”

The email then takes up other topics.

“I was simply explaining that they have to be the low bidder,” Aquino said in an interview Thursday.  “That's not proprietary information.  That's simply explaining how it works.  I would say the same thing to any bidder.  I had similar conversations with other vendors.”

Aquino also addressed whether he broke ethics rules by discussing contracts with Pearson less than a year after joining L.A. Unified from America’s Choice, a Pearson affiliate.

“While I officially terminated my employment from America’s Choice on June 30, 2011, my last day of work was April 26, 2011”—just over a year prior to the date of the first email.

He added that Deasy had asked him to be involved in talks with Pearson.

“At that time, I said something to the effect of  ‘I think someone else should take the lead as I am not sure if my cooling off period has expired or may be expiring shortly.’ John [Deasy] wondered if there was a conflict of interest since the pilot was not with Pearson but the Pearson Foundation. This conversation occurred in front of the entire senior leadership team. [General Counsel] David Holmquist stated that since the foundation was a separate legal entity…there was no conflict of interest.”

Holmquist said Thursday that he is not allowed to discuss legally privileged internal communications.

Aquino currently works as an executive with New Teacher Center, which provides support and training for new teachers. Its clients have included L.A. Unified, but the Board of Education this week failed to approve a contract extension for the firm.

Twitter: @howardblume 

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