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Some LA school board members want to reconsider touch-screen devices for students

Samantha S. uses a Google Chromebook during tech time  at Comienza Community Prep in Huntington Park.
Samantha S. uses a Google Chromebook during tech time at Comienza Community Prep in Huntington Park.
Grant Slater/KPCC

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At an overdue special meeting on the iPad project Tuesday, some members of the Los Angeles Unified school board began a serious debate over whether the district chose the wrong devices.

Board members Monica Ratliff and Steve Zimmer asked the administration to consider using laptops - which can be cheaper and more versatile - in its plan to equip every student and teacher with an electronic device. A motion study the idea will come to a board vote at the next school board meeting, November 12.

The board approved a $50 million expenditure for the first phase of the iPad project, including Wi-Fi expansion, last year. It has yet to approve the full project, which is currently estimated to cost $1 billion.

The district had originally proposed putting the devices in every student's hand next year. But Ratliff wants administrators to slow down. She wants to have a full one-year pilot - and to analyze how it went before investing in rolling out the devices to every school in the nation's second-largest school district.

There seemed to be a consensus among most board members that the pilot needs more time. Some parents who spoke during the seven-hour  meeting agreed.

“What’s the rush with phase two?” said parent Raquel Cedillo. “Why not iron out any wrinkles?”

But administrators repeatedly warned that waiting could jeopardize the district’s ability to take the state's new digital tests. Practice versions start in March.

No decisions were made at the meeting, but board members asked pointed questions about the contract, which officials described as a "living" document that can be modified.

Zimmer likes the idea of iPads for younger students and laptops for older. Either way, he wants the district to try to negotiate a better deal with Apple.

“I also want to feel like I got the best contract in the country, and I don’t feel like I did,” said Zimmer. “Do you need us to push?”

Board president Richard Vladovic said he has no problem “squeezing” Apple for a better price.

“I’m saying it’s a marketing strategy,” said Vladovic. “Apple stands to make a lot more when we become successful.”

Some board members also expressed interest in reevaluating their relationship with education materials giant Pearson – which is providing the educational software on the iPads.

The software is still being completed, though the clock on the 3-year license is running. After some questioned why it wasn't ready, district officials pointed to contract language that gave Pearson until December 2014.

Tuesday's meeting primarily consisted of a presentation by district administration on the project. Outgoing head of instruction, Jamie Aquino, said the pilot project has generated higher attendance rates and an enrollment bump at schools that got the devices.

Board member Bennett Kayser asked Aquino for hard numbers. They weren't available.

“We seem to following some other kind of scientific method in this process,” Kayser said.

Officials did reveal the most specific budget numbers to date. 

L.A. Unified wants to tap general funds for tens of millions to expand IT and training for the project. To keep it going when the contracts run out, it'll have to spend millions more for updates and new devices.

Those ongoing costs left some audience members cold.

“There is absolutely nothing in stone that says how this will be funded after the next three year,” said Sari Rynew, a former L.A. Unified teacher. “What are we going to cut?”

Some of the discussion also centered around liability for lost and stolen devices. The district has created a form making parents take responsibility for the devices if and when they start going home with students.

"We all agree that willful destruction of property is wrong,” Ratliff said. "My concern in the long run. The parent acknowledgement form needs to be clear about what they are agreeing to."

"I don’t want to have a situation," she added, "where some parents get treated differently than other parents."