LAUSD Deputy Supt. Jaime Aquino gives a high five to Hillcrest Elementary School teacher Rhonda Marie Smith as teachers attend a iPad training class in 2013. Aquino is no longer with the district. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Aug 29, 2014 :: The former Los Angeles schools official under scrutiny for his role in the district's $1.3-billion iPad program defended himself Thursday, saying that he did not improperly steer the contract to a company that once employed him.
Former Deputy Supt. Jaime Aquino said his involvement in the project was "by the book" and with the approval of the district's legal counsel.
"I have nothing to hide," Aquino said in emails to The Times.
Aquino, 49, has come under criticism for correspondence with education giant Pearson, which ultimately was chosen to provide the curriculum for the district's iPad program. Aquino had worked for a Pearson subsidiary before joining the district.
In one email, Aquino appeared to be strategizing with Pearson representatives when he wrote: "I believe we would have to make sure that your bid is the lowest one."
Aquino said Thursday he was not trying to subvert the open bidding process — that he meant only to emphasize to Pearson the district's intention to choose the lowest bidder.
In the full email, sent in May 2012, Aquino expresses concerns about the cost of training 2,000 teachers who would then work with their colleagues to learn the Pearson software. He goes on to voice worries about whether the district's bandwidth can handle every student using a computer for the 2013 school year.
He also weighs whether the district should have an open bidding process, then makes the comment about Pearson coming in with the "lowest one."
"I was simply explaining that they have to be the low bidder," he told The Times. "That's not proprietary information. That's simply explaining how it works. I would say the same thing to any bidder. I had similar conversations with other vendors."
Aquino on Thursday also addressed whether he broke ethics rules by discussing contracts with Pearson at all. L.A Unified policy prohibits employees from such dealings with former employers for 12 months. Aquino joined L.A. Unified in July 2011 from America's Choice, a Pearson affiliate. Less than a year later, records show, he was exchanging the emails with Pearson.
But he said there was an explanation for that.
"While I officially terminated my employment from America's Choice on June 30, 2011, my last day of work was April 26, 2011"— just over a year before the date of the first email.
He added that schools Supt. John Deasy had asked him to be involved in talks with Pearson — and that the district's general counsel, David Holmquist, had given him the go-ahead.
Holmquist said Thursday that he was not allowed to discuss legally privileged internal communications.
Aquino left the district at the end of last year and now is an executive with New Teacher Center, which provides support and training for incoming instructors. Its clients have included L.A. Unified, but the Board of Education this week did not approve a contract extension for the firm.
Deasy has defended Aquino and said Sunday that "nothing was done in any inappropriate way whatsoever." On Monday, he suspended new purchases of iPads in response to concerns about the earlier bidding process and other issues.
The $30-million iPad contract, approved by the board in June 2013, initially was expected to expand to about $500 million, with another $500 million spent on upgrading wireless access at campuses. So far, the district has spent about $61 million to purchase about 62,000 iPads.
Until the iPad controversy thrust him into the spotlight, Aquino was relatively unknown beyond education circles.
A native of the Dominican Republic, he earned a bachelor's degree in psychology from the Instituto Tecnologico de Santo Domingo. While there he also "volunteered to teach literacy to underprivileged children and adults, to work with handicapped children and to work with people with leprosy," according to his biography.
Aquino moved to the United States in the late 1980s, and in 1990 was named New York State Bilingual Teacher of the Year. He later held various posts in the New York system and was a deputy superintendent for Hartford Public Schools.
In 2005 he moved west to become chief academic officer for Denver Public Schools. Michael Bennet, now a U.S. senator, was the superintendent who hired him. He said the school system has made "huge progress" in recent years, much of it due to Aquino's strategic planning and other work.
"He was absolutely an essential actor in all of that," Bennet said.
The current superintendent, Tom Boasberg, worked alongside Aquino as a top deputy and called him a "straight shooter."
"He is a person of complete integrity, extraordinary ability and one of the hardest-working people I've ever met in my life," Boasberg said. "He has extraordinary passion for what he does. When he left Denver, it was literally a day of mourning for the school system."
Kim Ursetta, a former president of the Denver Classroom Teachers' Assn., had a different view.
"Quite honestly, collaboration was not always at the forefront of Jaime's agenda," Ursetta said. "We would often find out about initiatives after they'd already begun.... And often times the way it rolled out was not the way he said it would be."
It was the next stop in Aquino's career that would eventually raise concerns among critics of the iPad effort.
He served as a regional manager of the education consultancy America's Choice from 2008 to July 2011. America's Choice was acquired by Pearson in 2010.
In one email exchange in May 2012, Pearson representative Judy Codding — Aquino's former boss at America's Choice — suggested to him that a bidding process was not necessary, that L.A. Unified could deal exclusively with her company.
District officials instead set up bidding that centered on signing the primary contract with a computer maker, such as Apple, and using school-construction bonds to fund the effort. The complex rating system for bidders was overseen by Aquino, as part of a small executive committee.
In June 2013, district staff told the Board of Education that the Apple/Pearson team offered not only the best product but also the best price.
Board member Steve Zimmer recalled asking Aquino if the bidding process had been beyond reproach. It was, he said Aquino responded, the best he'd ever been associated with.
After little discussion, the board approved the contract without opposition.