Karin Klein of the Los Angeles Times wrote an excellent editorial about the disastrous decision to spend $1.3 billion on iPads for every student and staff member of the LA schools. It should be a cautionary tale for every school district that is about to invest hundreds of millions or billions of dollars in new technology.
The District’s Inspector General investigated the purchase and found nothing wrong. But he never looked at the emails that passed between district officials and the winning vendors (Apple and Pearson). The school board never released the results of that investigation. Now a federal grand jury has been impaneled to look at the evidence of possible wrong-doing, and that is a very good thing. The grand jury will also examined the botched computer system that cost millions of dollars and never performed as it was supposed to.
When the school board reached a severance agreement with Deasy in October, it issued a statement that board members do “not believe that the superintendent engaged in any ethical violations or unlawful acts” in regard to the emails. That statement was completely inappropriate considering that Bramlett’s investigation into the emails was still underway—as it is now. The board has no authority to direct the inspector general’s investigations—but it can hire and fire the person heading the staff office, and controls his office’s budget. (In fact, just a week or so before the board made its statement, Bramlett’s office pleaded for more funding, according to a KPCC report.) The statement could be seen as pressuring the inspector general not to find wrongdoing; in any case, board members are in no position to prejudge the matter.
For that matter, none of us are in that position. The emails could be perfectly legal and appropriate—or not. It’s unknown whether even a federal grand jury will be able to ferret out the full picture, since many earlier emails were apparently deleted and aren’t available. And if it uncovers ethical rather than legal problems, the public might never know; the grand jury is looking for evidence of crime. Federal crime at that. This might not be the best mechanism for examining the iPad purchase. But the investigation at least ensures that an independent authority is examining the matter, unimpeded by internal politics or pressures.
Yes, the public has a right to know and a right to expect that public officials will act in the best interests of students. As for the huge purchases for technology, we in New York have learned that even the sharpest and most ethical city officials have trouble monitoring the technology purchases. The largest financial scandal in the city’s historyoccurred recently, when a company called Citytime won an IT contract for $63 million in 1998 which ballooned into a $600 million payout; the principals went to jail. The school system’s ARIS project, launched in 2007, was supposed to aggregate data on the city’s 1.1 million students; it was recently dumped because so few teachers or parents used it, at a loss of $95 million. There were other instances where consultants bilked the city, in large part because no one supervised what they were doing.
Is there a moral to the story? Choose your own. Mine is that these multimillion dollar technology purchases must be carefully monitored, from beginning to end, to be sure that the public interest is protected and served. The problem is that many school districts lack the expertise to know whether they are getting what they paid for, or getting a pig in a poke. When even New York City and Los Angeles can be misled, think how much easier it will be to pick the pockets of mid-size and smaller districts.