After taking a second, deeper look at Los Angeles Unified's controversial iPad project, school board members reiterated their support Tuesday for the plan to equip all 600,000 students with tablet computers while hearing about lessons learned during the first phase of the $1 billion effort to transform kids into "global learners."
Members grilled district officials about computer keyboards and security, along with curriculum software and campus infrastructure. Throughout the daylong meeting, they said they back the mission of the project but conceded there are different ways and timelines to attain their goals.
"We have an obligation as the Board of Education to ask difficult questions to move us forward ... but there should be no doubt as we sit here today, that we are moving forward," said Steven Zimmer, the board's vice president. "Conversations about Phase 2 should not be mistaken for whether there is going to be a Phase 2, Phase 3 and Phase 4."
"We are committed to this. We will move forward. The job today is to make sure that the detail and the substance of what we have approved honors the weight of the mission we are on. If we need to make changes, so be it."
The iPad project is the brainchild of Superintendent John Deasy, who wants to equip all students, teachers and school administrators with the tablet computers. They'll be used for lessons and tests that are part of the first-ever national English and math standards taking effect next fall. Those Common Core standards are designed to be more rigorous and more aligned to real-world experiences in order to better prepare students for jobs or college.
With little discussion, the board in June approved a $30 million contract to buy iPads for kids and teachers at 47 schools. But the creation of a technology committee -- and questions about security, cost, instructional materials and parental responsibility -- have prompted a more thorough review as the board prepares to award contracts for the next phase of the project.
The massive program has run into several snags in its first year, including incidents in which students hacked security filters to access unauthorized sites, and some reports of lost or stolen devices.
The special meeting was called at the request of Monica Ratliff, the lawyer-turned-teacher who took office in July, representing the east San Fernando Valley. The only board member who wasn't part of the discussions and approval of the first phase of the iPad project, Ratliff was assigned by board President Richard Vladovic to chair a committee on the technology project.
Ratliff introduced a motion Tuesday, to be considered at the board's Nov. 12 meeting, saying the district should continue focus only on Phase I this academic year in order to resolve issues like parental liability and training programs and a detailed procedure for how schools will decide whether to allow students to take the tablets home.
Her motion also calls for purchasing keyboards for all of the middle and high students participating in the first phase "to better inform us of the possibilities and to allow the keyboards to be used during testing."
A separate pilot program would provide laptops to teachers and students of certain high schools so the board can compare the experience with the iPad Phase 1. The motion also calls on the district to bring Phase 2 of the plan before the board for a vote next summer, which would likely push completion of the project into 2016. Deasy initially wanted all students to have iPads by December 2014, but recently extended that deadline by a year because of concerns that the district was moving too quickly.
After hearing a report on the project's budget -- including as much as $252 million in general fund revenue to replace worn-out tablets four years from now -- Zimmer said he wasn't convinced that Apple and Pearson Education Inc., which sold the district the iPads and pre-loaded instructional software, had offered the district the best possible deal.
"I feel really, really good about raising the flag and talking about this team," Zimmer said. "I also want to feel like I have the best contract in the country and I don't feel like I do...We're the first in the country...This is a gigantic contract -- even across the world they are paying attention to this. Give us something. Send a signal."
Perhaps Apple could offer the district the latest tablet models or make some other concession, he suggested.
Vladovic echoed the sentiment, arguing that Apple was getting valuable public relations credit from its partnership with the district.
"Apple is making a lot and Apple stands to make a lot more when we become successful, as I believe we are," he said. "It's in their best benefit to make sure they're successful. I'm all for squeezing them."
Ratliff, however, said it was not her intent in organizing the meeting to try squeeze any more out of Apple or Pearson.
Matt Hill, the district's chief strategy officer, argued that at $768 a tablet, which includes an extra $400 to $500 worth of services such as warranty and cases, they are getting a very good deal.
"I challenge anyone in the country to find us a better deal on this," Hill said, adding that he was willing to see what more Apple and Pearson might be willing to offer.
The $768 a tablet price only kicks in after the district buys 500,000 to get a volume discount.
Deputy Superintendent Jaime Aquino said Apple and Pearson may have wondered whether the district intends on moving forward with Phase 2 and Phase 3 of the project and how committed the board is to the entire project, which could affect that consideration.
Board Member Tamar Galatzan was absent Tuesday while Bennet Kayser recused himself for part of the meeting because he owns Apple stock but was later advised by board secretary Jefferson Crain that he was allowed to participate in the discussion. Deasy had also recused himself out of concern that he may have a potential conflict of interest since he also has a financial interest in Apple.
Among the lessons learned cited by district officials from Phase 1 is the need to tailor bandwidth capabilities to each individual school site and to develop a robust, comprehensive security plan, including a summer storage plan, for the tablets.