The Los Angeles Unified School District needs more independent-minded people who question its initiatives, not fewer. The school board made a mistake with its refusal to reappoint a member of the Bond Oversight Committee who had opposed the use of bond funds to pay for iPads for every student.
There should be more people raising concerns about this sort of bond expenditure, though other school districts in the state have gotten away with doing the same thing. It’s completely justifiable to use bond money to upgrade schools for wi-fi capacity, which is where $500 million of the money would go. But there should be serious doubts in the public’s mind about using bonds to purchase computing devices that last a few years. Voters agreed to tax themselves on the understanding that the billions of dollars were to be used to build and repair schools, or make other capital expenditures that would last for at least a couple of decades, which is how long it takes to pay off the bonds.
Of course, as we all know now, the iPad program was so rushed, with too few of the important questions asked or answered, that it immediately ran into trouble. Some of those early problems have been fixed, or at least addressed. Among them was the higher-than-average price, and the district’s use of bond money to buy curriculum with its iPads, curriculum that hadn’t even been fully written when it was purchased. Bond funding is not supposed to be used for curriculum purchase. The price of the devices has since been reduced, with the curriculum no longer part of the package deal.
And the iPad purchase has been slowed, with a smaller buy-in at the start and a more purposeful build-up. That might involve a mix of devices instead of the original approach of an iPad for every student and teacher. High school students did not find the tablets as useful as laptops, for example.
These were the kinds of questions that Stuart Magruder, an architect on the Bond Oversight Committee, was raising when too many others were just going along. The board should have been glad to have a member of the committee doing exactly what the panel is supposed to do: carefully vet the use of bond money to ensure that it is properly and prudently spent.
Instead, the board refused a second term for Magruder, the first time it has refused to confirm a candidate from one of the outside groups that have been designated to nominate an oversight member. Magruder was the choice of the American Institute of Architects. In fact, it’s not entirely certain that the board was within its rights on the vote; some experts argue that the district signed a legally binding agreement to ratify these outside nominees. The district’s legal people say no.
But even if it wasn’t a legal mistake, it was a tactical one. Tamar Galatzan, who initiated the move to reject Magruder, has been the iPad program’s most enthusiastic supporter and has never asked the important questions about this planned expenditure of more than $1 billion. She and other board members should be glad that someone is asking. That's not to say Magruder is always right, or that he has framed his concerns in the most politic ways. The important point is that the district doesn't need more yes men. It should be grateful for the people who raise doubts; only by allaying those doubts with satisfying answers will it know that it's on the right path.