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Frustrated LA school board backs $3.6 million 'bailout' of faulty data system

In this August 2014 file photo, Jefferson High School students walk out from classes to protest a broken class scheduling system.
In this August 2014 file photo, Jefferson High School students walk out from classes to protest a broken class scheduling system.
Benjamin Brayfield/KPCC

The Los Angeles Unified board Tuesday night approved  the purchase of 3,340 computers costing $3.6 million for school sites struggling to properly schedule classes, take attendance and track student needs in a new data system.

Ron Chandler, the district's chief information officer, said old desktops in schools offices cannot properly run the new data system, MISIS. The L.A. Unified Bond Oversight Committee recommended against the purchase, citing little evidence that there's need for them. The board nonetheless approved the purchase.

Earlier on Tuesday, the board also approved $1.1 million to fix scheduling problems at Jefferson that left some students without necessary classes or assigned to courses they had already passed.

Officials said to expect a request for new teacher computers next month, as well as proposals for more system trainers and developers in the future.

Board member Tamar Galatzan called the computer purchase request a "bailout."

Galatzan and board member Monica Ratliff expressed concerns that district officials didn't involve the school board in deciding when to release the new system.

"It's just ludicrous," said Galatzan, who asked for an investigation into the data system's development and rollout earlier this school year.

L.A. Unified's technology division began building their own data system to save money, but when it was released last summer, problems immediately emerged. 

Hundreds of students piled into cafeterias and auditoriums waiting to be scheduled classes. Two months into this school year, some students at Jefferson, Dorsey and Fremont high schools still lack adequate instruction time, according to a lawsuit filed on the ACLU and Public Counsel on behalf of students.

"Right now our counselors and teachers are finding the bugs for us," said Matt Hill, the district's chief strategy officer. "That is not acceptable." 

An independent monitor tracking the progress of the new system found 80 percent of schools surveyed had issues tracking student special education information. 

Samuel C. Gilstrap, a district spokesman, said many of the technical glitches with the data system noted by the monitor have been fixed.

"It is as important for us, as it is for the public, to be cautious in over-interpreting the figures they presented," said Gilstrap. 

But board member Steve Zimmer raised concerns that special education services districtwide may be compromised. "This sounds alarm bells," he said.