L.A. Unified halts contract for iPads
by Howard Blume
L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy suspended future use of a contract with Apple on Monday that was to provide iPads to all students in the nation's second-largest school system amid mounting scrutiny of the $1-billion-plus effort.
The suspension comes days after disclosures that the superintendent and his top deputy had especially close ties to executives of Apple, maker of the iPad, and Pearson, the company that is providing the curriculum on the devices. And an internal report that examined the technology effort showed major problems with the process and the implementation.
"Moving forward, we will no longer utilize our current contract with Apple Inc.," Deasy wrote in a memo sent to the Board of Education on Monday.
"Not only will this decision enable us to take advantage of an ever-changing marketplace and technology advances, it will also give us time to take into account concerns raised surrounding the [project]," Deasy wrote.
Under the contract approved just over a year ago, Apple had been expected to provide iPads with Pearson as the subcontractor. School board members were made to understand that the initial $30-million contract was expected to expand to about $500 million as the project rolled out over the next year or so. An additional $500 million would be used to expand Internet access and other infrastructure issues at schools.
The purchases were being approved in phases, which gave Deasy the option of starting over.
But Deasy, who has been the main proponent of providing the iPads throughout the district and who has defended the project repeatedly, was coming under mounting criticism for his handling of the contract and for the implementation of the program.
Last week, a draft report of a district technology committee, obtained by The Times, was strongly critical of the bidding process.
Among the findings was that the initial rules for winning the contract appeared to be tailored to the products of the eventual winners -- Apple and Pearson -- rather than to demonstrated district needs. The report found that key changes to the bidding rules were made after most of the competition had been eliminated under the original specifications.
In addition, the report said that past comments or associations with vendors, including Deasy, created an appearance of conflict even if no ethics rules were violated.
Deasy immediately defended the integrity of his staff and the original process, but also noted that he hadn't read the draft report because a copy had not been provided to him.
Emails and other documents, some of which were released under a California Public Records Act request Friday, showed detailed -- and numerous -- contacts between Deasy, Deputy Supt. Jaime Aquino and the corporate executives.
It appears that the officials began discussing the school system's effort to supply students computers equipped with online curriculum at least two years before the contract was approved.
In one email, from May 24, 2012, Aquino seems to strategize with higher-ups from Pearson on how to ensure that it got the job.
"I believe we would have to make sure that your bid is the lowest one," wrote Aquino, who was an executive with a Pearson affiliate before joining L.A. Unified.
Deasy was one of the last to participate in that email exchange and made his comments after Aquino's, which covered several topics.
"Understand your points and we need to work together on this quickly," Deasy wrote. "I want to not loose [sic] an amazing opportunity and fully recognize our current limits."
On Sunday, Deasy said that the conversations were only about a "pilot program we did at several schools months before we decided to do a large-scale implementation. We did work closely on this pilot."
Deasy said he recalled that Aquino also offered another major vendor, Amplify Education Inc., a similar opportunity.
"Nothing was done in any inappropriate way whatsoever," the superintendent said. "Of course I talk to people. I would be expected to."
Aquino left L.A. Unified at the end of last year and has not responded to interview requests.
It remains to be seen if Deasy's action will satisfy critics. The teachers union Monday called for an official investigation of the original contracting process -- the union and Deasy have clashed before and are now in tense contract negotiations. And a source close to the district said L.A. Unified's inspector general is planning to conduct additional interviews.
An earlier inquiry by the inspector general was reviewed by the Los Angeles County district attorney's office, which concluded that no charges were warranted.
But the rollout was troubled from the beginning, and critics also found fault with the process that led to the selection of Apple as the lead contractor and Pearson as its main collaborator.
In the memo, Deasy said his decision also related to the changing marketplace. The original contract, for example, immediately came under fire because the model of iPad the district agreed to buy was almost immediately superseded by a newer version on retail shelves.
Deasy addressed that problem somewhat by getting Apple to agree to provide the newer model for the same price. The Pearson part of the deal also attracted critics because, for example, the school system was paying full price for a curriculum that still was under development during the first year of a three-year license. In his memo, Deasy also alluded to issues that arose during testing.
Some schools reported that students preferred taking new state tests on devices other than the iPads because the small size of the iPad screen made reading more difficult and because the attachable keyboards weren't as well integrated into the device.
Even before Deasy's action Monday, L.A. Unified had decided to try out other devices and other curricula at the high school level. Some devices still are being deployed this fall under the old contract, reaching students at 52 schools, according to the memo.
And under the recently expanded approach, 18,000 laptops are being purchased. Deasy wrote that he expects Apple and Pearson to be among the bidders in the new process.
"We will incorporate the lessons learned from the original procurement process," he said.
"We look forward to refining our processes and ultimately achieve our vision to equip every one of our students with a personal computing device to help them succeed in the 21st century."
Howard Blume with Ohanian comment
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