L.A. Unified watchdog back on the job
Maybe it was the relaxing summer vibe, the time to reflect or the widespread criticism of their small-minded ploy.
I’m guessing it was the latter.
But on Tuesday, members of the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education reversed a decision to dump a savvy critic who raised inconvenient questions about the district’s $1-billion plan to give every student in the district an iPad.
Stuart Magruder, an architect and L.A. Unified dad who was a member of the district’s volunteer Bond Oversight Committee, was reappointed on a 4-2 vote by the same board that sent him packing in May.
“I think it’s good for keeping our electeds accountable,” Magruder said of the decision.
Indeed. L.A. Unified has a roughly $7-billion budget, and voters have approved $20 billion worth of school improvement bonds since 1997. If anything, the superintendent and school board need more oversight, not less.
Magruder, whose ouster was the subject of my Sunday column, made an important point Tuesday. Why would voters ever again approve a bond for much-needed building repairs and upgrades if the school board is seen as inclined to steamroll anyone who asks tough questions?
Two of the staunchest supporters of Supt. John Deasy’s iPad initiative — board members Monica Garcia and Tamar Galatzan — cast the two dissenting votes Tuesday, but neither offered an explanation.
Galatzan, who told me last week that she thinks the oversight committee oversteps its bounds by steering into policy and curriculum issues, called for an audit of the committee at Tuesday’s meeting. That might be useful, but it came off as petty and peevish.
The four votes for Magruder came from Richard Vladovic, Steve Zimmer, Bennett Kayser and Monica Ratliff.
As I noted Sunday, Magruder and other critics aren’t anti-technology. This is the 21st century, and nobody wants the district’s 600,000-plus students left behind. But he raised a number of legitimate questions, beginning with whether it’s appropriate to use bond money — which is paid back over 30 years — to buy electronics with a life span of three to five years.
Then there was the district’s full-blown rush to purchase a software curriculum that wasn’t even completed, and its eagerness to do business with Apple — despite high costs and possible conflicts, including a promotional iPad video done by Deasy.
It was as if district officials were on a shopping binge, with little or no consideration of price or value, and no hard evidence of how and why students and teachers would benefit. Only under pressure from Magruder and others did the district slow down and give more thought to a smarter rollout.
So what do we need to keep an eye on, going forward?
Just about everything.
“I think we definitely need to move slowly,” said board member Ratliff.
She said she wants the district to figure out how to get textbooks onto the devices so kids aren’t lugging 40-pound backpacks all day. And she wants more consideration of student safety when “walking the streets with these devices.”
Scott Folsom, an oversight committee member, said he’s awaiting results of a district study comparing student performance on laptops versus tablets.
“This is important data the whole state is going to be looking at, and I would like to see the comparison,” said Folsom, who added that he won’t be inclined to support more spending (the committee’s votes are nonbinding) without that and other information in hand.
Although the initial district plan was to buy an iPad for every student, teacher and administrator as quickly as humanly possible, oversight committee Chairman Steve English had another thought. It might make more sense to use multiple devices, and different software curriculum, depending on grade level and other factors.
Tom Rubin, a consultant to the oversight committee, said the district needs to factor in the possibility of allowing students to use devices they already own rather than buying one for everybody.
Magruder still has several fundamental concerns, including this one:
“I cannot for the life of me see how an elementary school kid needs an iPad, and how that’s moving the pedagogical ball forward.”
Magruder said he believes a primary district objective is to digitally catalog test data and use it to evaluate teachers, but he’s not sure they have adequately addressed a more central issue.
“If we’re spending all this money, let’s figure out how to make it fantastic for the kids.”
What would also be fantastic, if you ask me, is to have the district release its internal report on the bidding process that led to the iPad choice. The district’s inspector general raised questions about it, according to a report by my colleague Howard Blume. And even though the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office decided criminal charges weren’t warranted, questions remain.
As Blume reported, citing district sources, a member of the district’s review panel owned a significant amount of Apple stock. And the district conveniently claims to have lost the scoring sheets used to rate bids by other vendors, which is one step short of saying the dog ate your homework.
The district has argued that the internal report is not a public matter. But unless there’s something to hide, why not come clean and regain a little public confidence before asking to spend several hundred million dollars more on the next phase of the technology rollout?
“If they continue to try to keep that report under attorney-client privilege,” Magruder said, the district will only raise suspicion, just as it did when board members opted not to reappoint him in May.
“I really would call on the district to release it,” he added. “It’s certainly relevant to the decision-making process.”
It’s good to have him back.
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