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LA Unified Inspector General probing free iPads given to staff

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The Los Angeles Unified School District's Office of the Inspector General is looking into staff members acceptance of free iPads at a pitch by curriculum developer Pearson about a year before at least one of those employees approved a $30 million contract with Apple and Pearson, according to district officials. 

"While we don't believe there is technically anything wrong with that, I believe the IG is doing a review of that and will come back with a recommendation," said Mark Hovatter, the district's Chief Facility Officer. He oversaw the iPad purchase last summer.

Board member Monica Ratliff has said the free devices give the appearance of a conflict of interest.

“You need to either turn it down or disqualify yourself,” Ratliff said.

But officials argue the iPads were not personal gifts, but rather donations to the district. 

"I can tell you that individuals are not allowed to receive gifts, but the school district itself is able to receive gifts," Hovatter said.

He compared the iPad with software to a sample textbook which are routinely given to schools.

District officials assured the committee that no iPads were given to staff during the bid period - only in 2012, a year prior, at a Palm Springs conference.

The revelation came at the school board's Common Core Technology Project Ad Hoc Committee meeting Tuesday. The committee has been reviewing the iPad purchasing process since last fall.

Lisa Karahalios, the UTLA representative on the committee, said the district's policy on accepting or denying donations or gifts seems to be applied inconsistently. She called such actions "tantamount to a bribe."

Officials said the purchasing office is now instituting a zero tolerance policy.

"Just the appearance that there could be some misconceptions, that someone could  see that connection - we are going to make sure that anyone that has gone to some sort event and receive some sort of item, will just be excluded from our process," Hovatter said.  "Just to make it as squeaky clean as possible."

The district did not directly contract with Pearson - rather Pearson is a subcontractor to Apple in the bundled purchase. Neither of the companies - or L.A. Unified - will disclose what Pearson's subcontract is worth.

But the company's profits from the deal are positioned to continue to grow. L.A. Unified has purchased fewer than 5 percent of the iPads the Superintendent John Deasy is requesting - only 30,000 so far in a district of 650,000 studdents. His original plan was to license Pearson's software for each new device, and the licenses will have to be renewed in three years.