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Despite board approval, Cortines opposes bond money for iPads

Vanessa Romo | October 23, 2014

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Child practicing multiplication on iPad

A day of iPad use at Cimarron Elementary

Barely a week into his job as LA Unified superintendent, Ramon Cortines is pushing back against the school board that hired him, voicing opposition to using any more of the $1.3 billion in bond money to buy digital devices equipped with curriculum for use in classroom instruction.

Three times since his first day on the job, at the start of this week, he has suggested that the district should not use voter approved capital improvement funds for the Pearson software that the board approved for the iPads bought from Apple.

In a statement from the district today, he said he is committed to providing technology to students, but added, “I still need to meet with the Common Core Technology Project team to learn more about the plans in place but I think we will need to identify alternative sources to fund the curriculum ongoing.”

This morning, he was quoted in the Los Angeles Times, saying, “I don’t believe the curriculum should be paid for with bond funds, period.”

And at his first school board meeting two days ago, he publicly disagreed with the board’s unanimous decision to use money from bond sales to pay for the $1.3 billion program, characterizing the expenditure as “stealing” from taxpayer dollars.

His public pronouncements would appear to put him at odds with a board that just hired him to replace the architect of the iPad program, John Deasy, whose handling of the program drew widespread criticism from the LA Unified community, including board members. Nonetheless, at every step in planning, the board approved Deasy’s approach to getting all LA Unified students a tablet or laptop.

While it’s not clear if Cortines’s views arose during the vetting process prior to his hiring, some board members now appear to be promoting a robust discussion of the technology issues.

“The sustainability of the program is something that really does have to be dealt with, and I am excited that there’s going to be more discussion about this because I think once you start discussing not using bond dollars for curriculum then there really has to be a discussion about what general funds are we going to use, what bond dollars are we going to use for what items,” said Monica Ratliff, who chaired the district’s Common Core Technology Project Committee but was not yet a member of the board when the iPad program was initially approved.

“We need to have a discussion about what we’re going to do to move forward because I don’t think people are interested in having technology completely grind to a halt. I think what people are excited about is the concept of responsible spending and getting the best devices for the best price for our students so that the project rolls out smoothly.”

Board member Steve Zimmer said today the entire project should be re-examined, including “the terms of the project goal and in terms of the funding.” But he added, “[Cortines’s statements] do not close the door to the use of bond funds in any way shape of form.” “I continue to believe that technology expenditures are in the scope of that,”

Zimmer added. “I have never waivered on that. However, I am very supportive of a balanced approach that looks at other funding options for parts of this.”

Board President Richard Vladovic told LA School Report: “I believe Superintendent Cortines is open to our students’ receiving the instructional materials they need while also making sure that our schools in desperate need of repairs get the funds that they deserve.”

After considerable Monday-morning quarterbacking by the board, the iPad program was slowed down in its rollout, changed to include a pilot program providing laptops to seven high schools and was eventually halted by Deasy when he came under fire for behind-the-scenes communications with Apple and Pearson officials in the months leading up to the contract with the district.

An investigation into the correspondence by the Inspector General is ongoing, but the board, in accepting Deasy’s resignation last week, cleared him of any “ethical or unlawful violations” in his dealings with executives.

So far, the district has spent approximately $61 million for 90,841 devices under the original contract with Apple. About 36,200 of those contain Pearson curriculum. The rest were purchased for Common Core testing. As it stands now, iPads with Pearson software are will only get to students in 58 of the district’s 900 or so schools by the end of November.

The district has twice sought approval from the Bond Oversight Committee for more spending. Last month, the district proposed spending $16.7 million for 21,840 iPads or Chromebooks for Common Core and other testing next Spring, including keyboards, transport/charging carts, staff support and other costs.

The BOC recommended against the project and suggested that the district return to the committee with more justification for the recommendation. A second proposal was for $16.4 million for 3,340 laptop computers for 784 school site offices and 11,270 mobile devices for middle and high school teachers at schools that have not previously received mobile devices through the Common Core Technology Project to support the MiSiS roll-out.

The BOC recommended that one-third of the request be approved and that District staff return to the committee with justification for additional devices, as may be required. In addition, more than $500 million has been allocated to modernize the wireless infrastructure to support the use of devices throughout the district.

In theory, the district is preparing to re-open the bidding process to new vendors for tablets and laptops, in the wake of Deasy suspending the previous contracts. But, Shannon Haber, a district spokeswoman, told LA School Report that the Request for Proposals has yet to be issued.

“There is no timeline for the RFP,” she said. “At this time we don’t know when that will start.”

Efforts to reach three other board members for comment — George McKennaTamar Galatzan and Bennett Kayser — were unsuccessful. Monica Garcia declined to comment.

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