School Board Seems Surprised by Its Own iPad Deal
Vanessa Romo | October 23, 2013
Let’s say an alien spaceship somehow descended on yesterday’s two LA Unified meetings concerning the district’s iPad program. It is entirely possible the ETs would end up with the impression that the district was months, perhaps even a year away from launching one of the most expensive and high profile projects the school board has ever taken on.
But two months into the school year, with more than 30,000 iPads deployed, $50 million already spent and another $500 million on the line, school board members still have more questions than answers about the most basic details of getting a sleek new(ish) tablet into the hands of every student. And what has become painfully obvious is that school board and committee members alike are only now asking questions that should have been asked long before the project got off the ground.
For instance, when school board members Monica Ratliff and Bennett Kayser asked, how much will it cost to get a tablet into the hands of every student, neither Hugh Tucker, in the district’s Facilities Services Division, nor Ron Chandler, Chief Financial Officer, could answer definitively. That’s due to several variables, including the cost of keyboards, which Chandler said the district is “still bidding out.”
They also wondered why the cost of each iPad appeared to rise from a projected $678 to $770, a question that might have been asked before the contract between the district and Apple was signed in July. It shouldn’t have been a surprise to committee members, either, that taxes and e-rate fees hadn’t been factored in when the board was initially sold on the idea early last year.
And, the discount that was negotiated with Apple won’t kick in until the district buys $400 million worth of devices for a savings of $13.5 million. Some members didn’t seem to know that was in the contract, too.
It seemed pretty clear that until yesterday’s gatherings of the Budget Facilities and Audit Committee and the Common Core Technology Project Ad Hoc Committee (gesundheit!), no one had raised the question over ownership of the Pearson curriculum that comes pre-loaded on each device. An important issue since the district’s contract with Apple expires three years from now, and Apple is the company that made the deal with Pearson Education Inc. as the software provider.
School board member Steve Zimmer asked, “The district plans to use the iPads for five years so what does it do for the last two?” He also wanted to know, will students and teachers still have access the Pearson software? Will the district have to pay again for updates?
In the end, the Pearson question took about an hour of discussion over the two meetings — and a musical chairs of district staffers who serve as committee members as well as witnesses — to get a partial answer. Chandler assured the Technology Committee that LA Unified “will own the content forever.” But he could not say what, if any, support or updates the district will get from the company once the contract with Apple is over.
And there’s still some confusion over the legality of allowing students to take the expensive devices home, a problem that could derail future funding for the project, according to the Bond Oversight Committee. The bond funds being used to pay for the project can only be used for construction or modernization of district facilities and not instruction or curriculum.
Scott Folsom, who represents the PTA on the bond committee and voted to support the first phase of the program said, “We rushed into this.”
“The superintendent [John Deasy] sold this as unstoppable once it got started but even he now is speaking about Phase 1 as an experiment and that it wouldn’t be a total waste if it stopped here because we still have the iPads.”
For months the school board, the bond committee and the technology committee have been promised answers and yesterday was no exception. Time and time again, over more than five hours of discussion and public comment, committee members yesterday were told, “We’ll look into that.”
And so the looking continues, with the next chance for answers at the full board meeting scheduled for next Tuesday.
That meeting, said, Daphne Congdon, Director of Information Technology, Finance and Administration, ”is going to be the best meeting ever.”
Somebody let the aliens know.