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L.A. Unified oversight committee nixes iPads for all teachers, says numbers don't add up

Second grade teacher Jacqueline Porter-Morris hands out iPads to her students at Baldwin Hills Elementary.
Second grade teacher Jacqueline Porter-Morris hands out iPads to her students at Baldwin Hills Elementary.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

An oversight committee on Wednesday approved the L.A. Unified District's plan to buy 25,000 more iPads for students from bond funds - but didn't sign off on providing tablets to every teacher and administrator in the district. The Bond Oversight Committee also approved a pilot of laptops for older grades, even as some members complained that the district didn't provide cost estimates.

The committee, which oversees school construction bonds, can only offer an opinion on trimming the $135 million Phase II expansion. Ultimate spending power lies with the Board of Education.

More money for the iPad program means less money to repair and build new schools, said committee member Stuart Magruder, of the American Institute of Architects.

"A good example of that is my son’s high school, Hamilton High, the front lights are out," said Magruder, who voted against expansion. "They exist, but the bulbs are dead. The school and the parents have been trying to get them fixed for the last couple of months - can’t get anyone out there to install new light bulbs."

The committee discussed the mounting complications and costs of the iPad pilot program, but ultimately set aside those issues for the school board. It focused instead on the intent and legal limitations of using bond money to buy computers and tablets.

"I think we are in danger of violating the trust of the voters, and you do that, you aren’t going to get it back anytime soon," said committee member Barry Waite, with the California Tax Reform Association.

Los Angeles voters approved five bonds totaling more than $19 billion between 1997 and 2008 to repair and modernize schools.

"I don’t think there was a soul that thought that meant putting an individual computer in someone’s hand," White said.

Others on the committee said they see technology expansion as vital school infrastructure. Committee member and parent Quynh Nguyen said it’s important for low-income students to have the same opportunities as their middle class peers.

"I’m personally not sold, frankly on the pedagogical end-all-to-be-all with devices," Nguyen said. "And, yet, I feel it is absolutely an experiment we have to conduct."

The committee voted 9-4 in favor of a more limited expansion than the school board proposed.

If the school board agrees, it would mark the third slowdown for the iPad program this year. Superintendent John Deasy proposed slowing down full rollout  last month and the school board last week only approved the next phase of the project and added a study period. It has yet to approve full rollout to each of the district's roughly 1,000 schools.

The final price tag of the next phase of iPad purchases is up for debate. The bond oversight committee calculated that $45 million would be sufficient.

District administrators quickly interjected that amount wouldn’t be nearly enough. They expect the expansion will cost $65-70 million, citing staffing expenses.

The discrepancy infuriated some committee members, who complained of the district’s fuzzy numbers throughout the pilot.

"I’m going to suggest to you, what we would like to see when you tell us you need 67,000 devices, is you give us the right formula you used to get to 67,000 not part way to 67,000," said committee chair Stephen English, an attorney who serves for L.A. City's Controller’s Office.

When he ran calculations on the district's breakdown, he found district officials overstated the cost of the iPads they wanted in this phase by $9 million.