Was the Los Angeles Unified School District’s $1.3-billion iPads-for-all program handled properly?
This question has been debated for more than a year — and took on new urgency this week after FBI agents removed 20 boxes of records from school district headquarters. A federal grand jury subpoena said these documents are part of a criminal investigation, which appears to be focused on events leading up to the June 2013 approval of a contract with Apple, the Cupertino, Calif.-based technology giant.
As the second-largest school system in the country, L.A. Unified spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year buying everything from pencils to trucks and negotiating deals ranging from construction to psychological services. But few purchases have been as high-profile as the iPad acquisition. Now, the effort has slowed and includes other devices.
Here’s a guide to how the process that led to the iPad contract unfolded:
Picking the right computer
Different types of computers offered widely varying features and, early on, officials had to decide which ones would matter most. Then-Supt. John Deasy also had goals other than simply providing technology. He wanted to act quickly so students could practice taking new state tests on computers. And he wanted to move the district entirely away from textbooks to a digital curriculum.
Digital Promise, a nonprofit authorized by Congress to spur innovation in education, recently released a report that looked at digital buying practices. It found that evaluating options is one of the biggest challenges.
“There are a ton of products and limited information to help districts make good choices about what will meet their needs,” said Phil Martin, an executive with the Washington, D.C., organization.
Did Apple have an early edge?
When a school district is considering a major buy, officials research the product to find out what is available. They often discuss ideas with potential suppliers since they know the market; the district frequently has relationships with many of these companies.
Deasy said this is exactly what he did, along with senior members of his team. In the two years before the contract was approved, the schools chief met separately with the top executives at Apple and Pearson, which provided the curriculum on the devices.
Some of these contacts have since become controversial, leading critics to question whether the two firms had a role in shaping bidding parameters and an edge in the subsequent rating of the vendors.
A year before the bidding began, Deasy seemed to signal where his preferences lay in a promotional video he filmed for Apple in December 2011.
“We had decided to adopt iPad technology, as we were trying to provide ways for increasing student engagements,” Deasy said in the ad.
Deasy explained later that he was referring to a pilot program, and added that he did not participate in the bidding process for the districtwide contract because he owned Apple stock.
Pearson appeared to work directly with then-Deputy Supt. Jaime Aquino in developing L.A. Unified’s five-year technology plan, which was approved by the Board of Education in May 2012.
A May 24 email from Pearson executive Judy Codding to Aquino and another senior official was titled “Creating a plan that merges Jaime’s team’s work and the proposed plan that emerged from 5/18/2012 meeting.”
In one email exchange, Deasy and Aquino, a former executive of a Pearson affiliate, discuss broad use of Pearson’s digital curriculum.
“I believe we would have to make sure that your bid is the lowest one,” Aquino told Pearson. Aquino later told The Times he was simply noting that the company would have to have the best price if it wanted to get the contract.
Aquino left the district at the end of 2013. Deasy resigned under pressure in October.
A spokesman for Pearson said that it was important to distinguish between the bidding period and different projects under discussion previously.
Best price vs. best computers
Eventually, the district used a scoring system based on factors other than just price, which eliminated most of the teams competing with Apple and Pearson.
“For trucks, public policy dictates you get the cheapest one and spend the least amount of taxpayer dollars,” said Mike Jenkins, an adjunct professor at USC Law Center and city attorney for several towns. “If you’re hiring an architect to build a new library, for example, you’re going to consider creativity, approach, other buildings designed.”
He added that firms competing for the business should not be helping to define the rules for scoring.
In addition, the district cannot give information to only one company. Questions posed by vendors are posted for all to see, along with the answers.
“Maintaining and creating that level playing field is very important,” said Tina Borger, executive director for finance and administration at the National Institute of Governmental Purchasing in Washington, D.C.
Once the district decided what it wanted, it issued a “request for proposal,” a blueprint for the bidding. That document spelled out specifications for the products and established a timeline. The bidding process began in March 2013.
At that point, vendors were told to avoid contact with any district employee or official who was not part of the bidding process, a period known as the “cone of silence.”
Pledging ‘integrity and ethics’ in process
Ultimately, Board of Education members were presented with three finalists. Senior staff described the Apple-Pearson proposal as the best in both price and quality.
Just before the vote, school board member Steve Zimmer asked Aquino to affirm that staff had followed all legal guidelines and carried out “a completely rock-solid, airtight procurement process.”
“With absolutely no doubt,” Aquino responded. “I am actually in awe of how we have done this process.... This has gone beyond my expectation in terms of a level of integrity and ethics.”