Documents released under a Public Records Act request shed new light on LAUSD's $1.3-billion iPad program
By Howard Blume , L.A. Times | http://lat.ms/1E9hTzB
Students at Theodore Roosevelt High School explore iPads provided by L.A. Unified, part of the district's $1.3-billion technology program. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
Nov 1, 2014, 4AM :: More than a year before the Los Angeles Board of Education agreed to an iPads-for-all program, Apple and a leading curriculum company repeatedly sought meetings with school board members, newly released emails and records reviewed by The Times show.
The communications with the board and representatives from Apple and Pearson far exceeded those with other vendors vying for a share of the $1.3-billion initiative to provide a computer, loaded with curriculum, to every student, teacher and campus administrator.
The emails and documents do not indicate that board members violated laws or L.A. Unified's ethics policy. But they show how the two companies tried to win lucrative contracts with the nation's second-largest school system. Both companies offered to give school board members informational sessions about their products and to explain how they were currently being used within the district and elsewhere.
L.A. Unified's inspector general is conducting an investigation into whether former Supt. John Deasy or anyone else acted improperly. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
The board members were key because they would ultimately vote on the winning bidder.
"When outside vendors are after a contract they set up meetings like these to pitch their products," said Dan Schnur, executive director of the Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. "There's nothing wrong with these meetings as long as they're not providing an advantage. It does appear that these vendors [Apple and Pearson] got a much better opportunity to make their case than their competitors did."
The nearly 1,000 pages of records were released under a Public Records Act request first submitted by former Supt. John Deasy, who along with his deputy came under scrutiny for their close relationship with executives from those firms.
Deasy's attorney sought to unearth similar connections between board members and 18 technology companies, including Apple, which provided iPads under the contract, and Pearson, which provided the digital curriculum. The documents show little, if any, evidence that other vendors pursued meetings with the board.
Records indicate that communications between the board and vendors ceased during the formal bidding process between Feb. 13 and June 18, 2013, when the Board of Education, without opposition, approved the contract. District rules prohibit communication during that period.
The records request spanned the beginning of 2012 through early September 2014. It's unclear whether contacts were made prior to that time.
In January 2012, then-board President Monica Garcia received an email from an Apple account executive who scheduled a meeting with her.
"Amazing how textbooks have finally evolved and I am pretty excited to see LAUSD represented in one of Apple's video [sic]," Apple's Jaime Perez wrote. "I have attached a few links for you to look at and would like to further update you on what this could mean for plenty of schools in LAUSD already adopting iPads. There are several!"
There's nothing wrong with these meetings as long as they're not providing an advantage. It does appear that these vendors got a much better opportunity. - Dan Schnur, executive director, Unruh Institute of Politics at USC
Perez also referred to a conference in New York, where Apple aired a promotional video that included Deasy touting the benefits of the iPad and explaining why the district had chosen it for a pilot program. The bidding for the major contract still was a year away.
In March, a Pearson representative requested a meeting with Garcia and also with Richard Vladovic.
"My job is to understand, communicate and serve as a liaison for you and all that is Pearson," said company vice president Joe Brumfield.
Developing ties with board members was part of a larger strategy. In the summer of 2012, for example, Pearson's charitable foundation subsidized a trip to a Palm Desert conference during which about 50 district staffers heard about Pearson's digital curriculum and received an iPad for district work. Some participants would soon play key roles in evaluating bidders.
An early collaboration involved board member Tamar Galatzan, who has consistently pushed for improved technology. She allocated more than $4 million for technology projects from the relatively small portion of school construction bonds under her control, according to her staff.
As a result, her staff was in regular contact with Apple representatives regarding deliveries and training. And, as with Garcia, Apple and Pearson also wanted to talk about what they could offer L.A. Unified as a whole.
Her staff also corresponded with Pearson about setting up free pilot programs of its products within Galatzan's district; the company pledged to help but nothing came of it.
Apple and Pearson continued their outreach. Records show a December 2012 exchange with Galatzan's office about possible Pearson pilots in her district; meetings between board member Steve Zimmer and Apple on Dec. 21, 2012, and Jan. 7, 2013; and a Feb. 6 meeting between Apple and a staff member for Vladovic.
(Zimmer said this week that he had instigated his meetings with Apple, in an unsuccessful attempt to get the company to donate or subsidize technology at additional campuses.)
The attempt to build relationships mirrored what was happening during this period with Deasy and his senior deputy, Jaime Aquino.
One difference is that the wooing of Deasy involved the most senior executives at Apple and Pearson, according to documents previously released. Another is that Deasy and Aquino were discussing a potential contract with the companies.
Deasy has said it was his responsibility to seek good products at good prices, adding that these discussions were set aside in favor of an open bidding process.
The former superintendent declined to comment this week on the documents. Deasy's attorney, Harvey Saferstein, did not respond to a request for comment.
Apple officials also did not comment.
Pearson spokesman Brandon Pinette said the company is "proud of our long history of working with LAUSD's education leaders, teachers and students and look forward to helping the district accomplish their goals in the future."
After the board approved the Apple/Pearson contract, some contacts continued between the companies and board members — at one point this year, for example, Apple's Perez promised to arrange for private computer training for Garcia.
Other companies entered the fray. Some tried to set up meetings, with mixed success, with Monica Ratliff, a new board member who headed a panel overseeing the technology.
Apple and Pearson, meanwhile, declined repeated requests to appear in public before her committee.
Microsoft, which also had sought the contract, set up meetings to register concerns about the bidding process, and also to promote its products. On Dec. 6, 2013, a company representative met separately with Zimmer and Ratliff.
Those meetings drew a rebuke from Ron Chandler, who headed the technology division until his resignation on Friday. He warned that inappropriate contacts, such as direct negotiations with a board member, could disqualify the company from contracts.
In August, Deasy suspended purchases under the Apple/Pearson contract and announced he would launch new bidding.
On Oct. 15, the superintendent resigned under pressure. He has denied any wrongdoing, but critics have cited his handling of the iPad project as a major failure of his tenure.