A former L.A. schools superintendent has stepped forward to criticize a $1 billion effort to provide every student, teacher and campus administrator with a tablet or laptop computer. William J. Johnston, 87, did not object to the goal, but focused instead on using school-construction bonds to fund the project, which, so far, has involved purchasing iPads.
“I believe the current purchase of iPads from school bonds is illegal,” Johnston wrote in a Feb. 6 letter to the committee that oversees the spending of the voter-approved funding. The bonds are paid back through increases in property taxes.
The letter was included in materials for the committee's Thursday meeting.
“iPads are known to last for approximatey three years,” Johnston wrote. “New developments and technology will make them obsolete, requiring replacements. School bonds are designed to buy property, build schools, equip schools with lasting equipment. School bonds are paid for over a 25-year period.”
He added: “Voters approved the school bonds because they needed schools built, schools repaired, school equipment updated. They did not vote for iPads, a three-year consumable product.”
Johnston, who served as superintendent from 1971 to 1981, is hardly alone in his concerns, which the district recently addressed publicly. Officials have maintained that state law, over time, has been clarified to affirm that bonds can be used for technology. And bond measures specifically list funding for technology.
A Los Angeles Unified School District legal opinion asserts further that portable computers that can be taken home are a logical, updated extension of technology, which used to be available to students only in computer labs with bolted-down desktop devices.
The bond funds also are being used to purchase curriculum on the devices, which is costing about $200 per student for a three-year license. In an interview, the former superintendent said he also was troubled by the curriculum purchase.
The nation’s second-largest school system has answered this criticism, too. It has compared the purchase of curriculum to the outfitting of a newly built school library with books, which the district characterizes as standard practice. L.A. Unified also compares the curriculum, which is still being developed, to software that is automatically installed on most computers and included in the price.
In a written response to Johnston, bond committee chairman Stephen English listed actions his panel has taken to explore the legal underpinning of the program as well as other oversight steps.
“I thought he did an excellent job in responding,” Johnston said in an interview. “I think he is an honorable chairman and is doing a job he believes is correct. I still am a little troubled.”
Johnston wrote his letter after consulting a lawyer and construction expert. He also contacted the L.A. County Counsel’s office, but said he is not optimistic that the agency would take on L.A. Unified. So far, the school district has faced no threatening legal challenge of its funding strategy.
Johnston's concerns, however, were echoed Thursday by some members of the bond committee.
“I have to object to the continued use of bonds funds to what I consider to be modern versions of pencil and paper,” said Stuart Magruder, an architect. “My daughter can’t drink water from the water fountain" at Palms Middle School, he said, asserting that more spending should focus on the condition of schools. And, he added, there are no soccer games at night because the field lacks lights.
At its next meeting, the oversight committee will weigh possible limits on the use of bond funds for technology. The committee is only advisory; the elected Board of Education is not bound by its recommendations.
At the state level, proposed legislation would prevent districts from using these dollars to provide portable computers for every student.