Computer windfall remains elusive

Larrubia is a Times staff writer

Two years ago, California public schools received an unexpected gift: a grant of $250 million for new computers, software and training.

The windfall was part of a $1.1-billion settlement of a class-action lawsuit against Microsoft that alleged the company had plotted to monopolize a portion of the computer industry.

At the time, state Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell said the funds provided “a wonderful opportunity to close the digital divide in many of our schools.”


But most of the money -- nearly $200 million -- remains untouched.

“That’s troubling to us,” said Richard Grossman, a partner with Townsend and Townsend and Crew in San Francisco and co-lead attorney for the plaintiffs. Grossman said the state’s schools will probably receive even more money, once a final piece of the lawsuit is settled.

Hilary McLean, a spokeswoman with the California Department of Education, which is overseeing the distribution of the grants, said school districts have said they’re waiting to see how much more they’re going to get before deciding how to spend it.

“It’s unlikely that there’s going to be another round of resources like this” in the near future, she said.

That explanation wasn’t good enough for Susan Kovinsky, a stay-at-home mom in the San Fernando Valley who volunteers at her children’s schools, Colfax Elementary and Walter Reed Middle School. Kovinsky said she was impressed with the iMac computers in her daughter’s classroom until she learned that many of them weren’t working. The computers at her son’s school are outdated, and the technology budget is so tight that there’s no money to buy Microsoft Word and Excel software.

“I don’t know how they can sit on it in this economy,” she said of the Microsoft settlement money. “I want it to start now.”

The Los Angeles Unified School District was awarded vouchers worth $34 million, more than six times as much as the next highest district. The money was slated for low-income schools, where at least 40% of the students qualify for subsidized lunches. The vast majority of L.A. Unified schools meet that criterion.


But the school system has spent less than $6 million of the money since the state awarded the grants in September 2006.

Themy Sparangis, the district’s chief technology director, said his department held six monthly meetings beginning in fall 2006 with principals, teachers, school officials and parents to solicit their advice. Upgrading outdated computers -- many of which were purchased in the 1990s -- and buying software were the highest priorities on everyone’s list, he said, along with training and support.

But officials did not immediately make those purchases.

Instead, the school system moved forward with two small districtwide programs. Tony Tortorici, the district’s chief information officer, said $2.8 million was spent on a Scholastic reading program to help upper-grade teachers who were working with poor readers. In addition, he said the school system spent $3 million on an upcoming pilot program aimed at giving teachers an easier way to access students’ standardized test scores and other academic measures.

In the meantime, the state’s budget turned sour, which officials said is a problem because school districts must use their own money to buy products, then submit invoices for reimbursement, which can take 30 to 60 days. Tortorici said he brought up the Microsoft vouchers during budget deliberations with district Supt. David L. Brewer and his Cabinet last spring.

“The guidance we got is: Keep this on the back burner right now,” Tortorici said. “Certainly if we were in a different kind of budget environment, it would be faster.”

L.A. Unified’s annual budget is about $6 billion.

The schools have six years to use the vouchers.

“We have the right at that point to designate some other beneficiary that would benefit the class indirectly,” said Grossman, the plaintiffs’ lawyer. “We could give it to libraries across the state, or something like that.” He said he hoped it wouldn’t come to that.


In addition, the district received a separate $3.1 million in technology vouchers from Microsoft. That money came from California government agencies’ suit against Microsoft on the same monopoly grounds as the other consumer lawsuit. Grossman said L.A. Unified has also spent little of this money.