Monday, February 14, 2011

LAUSD CONSIDERS DIALING BACK ON USE OF CELL PHONES: Fiscal hawks join city and state in looking at cuts in gadgetry to ease deficit.


By Connie Llanos, Staff Writer/Daily News/Daily Breeze |

Posted: 02/13/2011 10:18:56 PM PST - Los Angeles Unified spent $2.3 million last year on 2,025 cell phones, 821 smart phones and 455 wireless cards for its employees.

But whether the gadgetry is necessary — or whether the money could better be spent elsewhere — is the subject of an audit being conducted as the district struggles to close a $408million deficit.

"Running the district is like running your home, and when you can't pay the mortgage, you have to go off the champagne diet," said school board member Richard Vladovic, who provided the breakdown of the district's mobile equipment budget.

"We are a people business, so our money needs to be spent on people and not on things."

The school board-ordered audit comes on the heels of a demand by Gov. Jerry Brown that agencies cut by half the number of cell phones issued to state employees. The reduction of 48,000 cell phones will save California taxpayers an estimated $20 million.

And just last week, City Councilman Dennis Zine introduced a motion that would reduce Los Angeles cell-phone expenses by 10 percent now and 30 percent in the fiscal year that begins in July.

Los Angeles had already conducted a technology audit last fall as it looked for ways to reduce a $5million cell phone bill.

As a budget item, cell-phone expenses are only a fraction of the city's $7 billion annual budget. Even the deepest cuts to this bill would only scratch the surface of the city's estimated deficit of $350 million for next fiscal year.

But City Controller Wendy Greuel said it tends to be a good place for agencies to start.

"It's easy for people to understand, it's tangible because everyone has them ... so people want to know if their government is using them properly," Greuel said. "In tough economic times you have to look at the big things and the little things."

Most public agencies pay their cell phone bills out of their unrestricted budgets, a fund that also pays for employee salaries.

Vladovic argued that reducing taxpayer-funded cell phones could help save the job of a teacher, library aide or custodian as the nation's second-largest school district looks to close a budget gap next year that could balloon to more than $400 million.

Vladovic , who represents the Harbor Area as well as Carson, Gardena, Lomita and part of Rancho Palos Verdes, even suggested asking district workers to use their own phones.

"In this day and age, to make a presumption that an adult does not have a cell phone doesn't seem too smart," Vladovic said.

"Maybe we could ask people to use their own phones ... because pennies turn into quarters and quarters turn into dollars."

LAUSD Superintendent-elect John Deasy, who will take over district operations in April, said all technology should not be considered a luxury for the district.

Some district employees spend most of their time working from remote locations, so a BlackBerry that can make phone calls and receive e-mails becomes a mobile office.

Districts are also able to apply for federal grants to help pay for technology expenses. LAUSD, for instance, received a $1 million federal grant that helped pay for nearly half of the entire mobile device bill.

Still, Deasy said, he hopes the audit will enable the district to pay for "fewer and cheaper" mobile devices.

"Yes, we are in an era of cuts and all items must be on the table, but we also need to maintain services for students and schools," Deasy said.

Cell phones are an essential tool in keeping students safe during emergencies, like during the shooting at Gardena High School and the recent lockdown of nine West San Fernando Valley campuses, Deasy said.

"It was with cell phones that we sent out messages to parents to keep them informed," he said.

In addition to auditing the use of mobile devices, district officials said they also plan to review other telecommunication equipment, such as office phone, fax and Internet lines. During any given year, LAUSD can spend about $20 million on all of its telecommunication needs, which includes voice-mail and long-distance phone services.

Scott Folsom7:22 am

This is a complicated issue - and while about money shouldn't be ALL about money. Reliance on wired telephony is a 20th century solution! There are charter school operators who MANDATE that their teachers be available to parents by cell phone after hours - a far cry from LAUSD practice of protecting teacher's privacy. One presumes (and labor law mandates) the schools provide +/or compensate for the phones and service. Communications with parents has never been LAUSD's strong suit - and Dr. Deasy's comments about safety issues ring true. HOWEVER - with the large number of cell phones and wireless connections LAUSD should be driving a much more favorable deal with providers - it is my understanding the District pays more than the man/woman on the street for wireless. I recall the mayor made a lot of noise a few years back about a city-wide wireless network - which could be made available to the schools and students free or at cost. That would be a much better investment of stimulus $ than a football stadium downtown!

The revolution in Egypt was fought and won on cell phones connected to the internet, not on hand-line phones or wired computers. The revolution in public education is not/will not be all that different.

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