Alex Caputo-Pearl, President of UTLA
August 27, 2014 8:07 am :: It might be the new school year, but it was a series of old problems awaiting the LA Unified school board yesterday as it met long into the night with a full complement of seven members for the first time in eight months.
After the swearing in of newly-elected District 1 member George McKenna, a closed session ran 2 1/2 hours late before the board emerged for an open session and spent the first hour grilling administrators about the anything-but-smooth implementation of the district’s latest student tracking system, known as MiSiS.
For the first time in public, the officials acknowledged that mistakes — seen and unforeseen — had plagued a rollout that began in June, causing “frustration, pain and suffering in our schools,” as described by Ron Chandler, the districts Chief Information Officer.
“This was not what we expected; it’s not what our students deserve,” said Matt Hill, LA Unified’s Chief Strategy Officer, who had the final say in putting the new system online. “We knew there’d be some issues, but not of this magnitude.”
MiSiS, which stands for My Integrated Student Information System, represents the final stage of a 10-year process for upgrading systems that allow administrators to enroll students in schools, make class assignments, and allow teachers and parents to track student progress.
Criticism of its flawed implementation echoed the response to the district’s iPad rollout last year — more on that later — particularly by the leadership of the teachers union, which has blamed the system for disrupting the first weeks of school for thousands of students.
Union President Alex Caputo-Pearl took a thinly-veiled shot at Superintendent John Deasy, calling the rollout an example of “autocratic decision making,” which he said must end.
He suggested that the district and union create a joint technology committee to avoid problems caused by big technological innovations; Deasy responded later, telling the board, “We welcome and look forward to that, strongly.”
Hill and Chandler were contrite before the board, taking time to explain in great detail how the program encountered problems, some of which have been fixed. They promised that the new system has been “stabilized” but did not promise that new issues would not arise in the months ahead.
Despite the difficulties, they defended the decision to go forward, with Chandler saying, “The issues were not great enough to not use the new system.”
The prelude to the meeting was another swirl of controversy over the district’s so-called “billion dollar iPad program” and Deasy’s decision on Monday to suspend the district’s contract with Apple, Inc. and its software partner, Pearson.
A series of emails released by the district appeared to suggest that Deasy and a former lieutenant, Jaime Aquino, had worked to help the two companies win a bid for the program. Deasy announced he was curtaining the Apple deal and opening a new bidding process.
The district is now considering a new investigation into the period before the contract bidding actually began, focusing on what, if anything, Deasy and Aquino did to help the two companies win the deal. Aquino, who worked for Pearson before joining LA Unified, may be of particular interest, in light of an email he wrote to his former employer in May 2012, which said, “I believe we would have to make sure that your bid is the lowest one.”
Another slice of the iPad issue arose at the board meeting through a brief dialogue, sometimes testy, between Tamar Galatzan and Monica Ratliff, who authored a critical report that reviewed the entire iPad program.
Ratliff had made a draft of the report available to board members and senior staff, only if they agreed to sign a non-disclosure agreement, which Galatzan had refused to do, and was thus denied a copy.
Galatzan made her objections public in the open meeting, suggesting that members’ forcing each other sign such agreements was no way to conduct board business. Ratliff defended her action, saying she wanted to give recipients a chance to read it and offer comments.
“It was an attempt to maintain the integrity of the draft while it was in the draft process,” Ratliff said.
Caputo-Pearl also weighed in on the iPad program.
“We’ve always had educational concerns, we’ve also always had budget concerns… and now we’ve got a legal concern about what actually happened and whether there were illegalities in the procurement and bidding process,” he told reporters before the meeting, adding that the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office should launch a new investigation into the matter.
He said the iPad program, too, was an an example of “autocratric behavior that isn’t healthy for public education and a public institution.”
Deasy’s decision to curtail the Apple deal means that the district is scrapping Phase 3 of iPad distribution plan, although six schools have yet to receive new devices. LA Unified has already purchased tablets designated for deployment in Phase 2 of the plan.
The open meeting didn’t start until 6:20 p.m. — a full two hours and twenty minutes late — and ended at 10:43 p.m., much to the frustration hundreds of parents, teachers and students who waited on the sidewalk before being allowed into the boardroom.
“We thought it [the closed session] would go faster and it didn’t,” the newly goateed board president, Richard Vladovic, told the audience. “I apologize…I take responsibility but we had to talk and we did.”
Much of the delay was due to lengthy discussion on the district’s labor negotiations with the teachers union, which is seeking it’s first new contract in seven years.
Another reason, according to a district staffer, was that the board had a lengthy discussion on increasing the budget for the Inspector General’s office. Ken Bramlett, head of the department, reportedly requested a boost in funding in light of the mounting number of investigations his office has been asked to conduct.
In addition to demands for a new investigation into the iPad emails, Bramlett’s office has also been asked to launch an investigation into the MiSiS rollout.
Further, an investigation in June into the accounting practices for two Magnolia Academy public charter schools cost $700,000, leading to a board vote to close the two schools. They remained open after a state superior court judge ruled that LA Unified officials circumvented the legal process for closing them.
Deasy has since asked for a review of six other Magnolia charters in the district.
Before adjourning, the board voted unanimously to approve the findings of the Magnolia audit, which determined that Magnolia Science Academy 6 and Magnolia Science Academy 7 were insolvent and engaged in suspect accounting practices. The complete document has yet to be released to the public or Magnolia officials.
About two hundred Magnolia Public School students and families — two busloads — waited late into the night to plead with the board not to adopt the Inspector General’s audit findings which could lead to a retroactive non-renewal of the two school charters.
Janelle Ruley, a lawyer representing Magnolia, said the court order bars the district from taking any action against the charters.
“If the board approves [the non-renewal] it will be doing so in direct defiance of the court order…and it will cause fear and uncertainty for hundreds of families,” she said.
Magnolia’s accountant, Kim Onesko also disputed claims that the charter school management organizations is insolvent. He told the board, “Magnolia is solvent. Period.”
As for McKenna, in his first full meeting, he was more of an observer than participant. He asked no questions nor did he weigh in on any of the 22 items before the board.