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LA schools iPads: Officials on bid committee got free tablets, resort trips

L.A. Unified has already purchased 75,000 iPads, half with Pearson software. Here, second graders at Baldwin Hills Elementary swipe through their iPads for the first time and call out the apps they see.
L.A. Unified has already purchased 75,000 iPads, half with Pearson software. Here, second graders at Baldwin Hills Elementary swipe through their iPads for the first time and call out the apps they see. Maya Sugarman/KPCC

Los Angeles Unified officials who evaluated bids for its massive technology project received iPads from Pearson, met with a Pearson software executive and attended a weekend sales pitch for that software — all ahead of the public bid process, documents show.

The revelation is important because Superintendent John Deasy has repeatedly said the bid process was not affected by early conversations on the software — which he asserts were limited to a small pilot project.

According to travel reports received through a public records act request, Susan Tandberg and Gerardo Loera, top administrators in the district's office of curriculum and instruction, attended a Pearson conference at a Palm Desert resort in July 2012 where all attendees were given iPads loaded with Pearson's learning software.

A third office of curriculum and instruction staffer, Carol Askin, also attended the conference and would have received an iPad, records show.

Both Tandberg and Askin later sat on committees that directly reviewed bids for the $500 million one-to-one technology contract. Loera served as a "technical advisor" to those evaluation committees.

In addition, Tandberg, Loera and their boss, Jaime Aquino, agreed to met with Sherry King, vice president of Pearson's iPad software initiative, in October 2012, according to internal emails.

King also suggested the L.A. Unified team meet with her twice more in November, "to start some planning," the emails show.

Tandberg, Loera and Askin issued a joint statement through district's office of communication, saying their attendance at the conference "in no way influenced [their] decision" in evaluating bids.

"In our profession, we talk to numerous education companies and vendors every day," the statement said.

L.A. Unified Superintendent John Deasy canceled the iPad/Pearson contract on Monday after KPCC published emails showing he and other L.A. Unified officials had meetings and conversations with Pearson and Apple executives starting a year before the contract was awarded.

California's Fair Political Practices Commission bars gifts from a single source exceeding $440 in a year. L.A. Unified purchasing policy also prohibits companies from making gifts of that size.

Apple's suggested retail for new iPads at the time was $500-$700, depending on storage capacity. Pearson quoted L.A. Unified $50 per year per device for its software, which is still in development.

Loera did not declare the iPad on the school district's mandatory gift disclosure forms. Tandberg declared $500, what she estimated Pearson covered of her food and lodging, but also did not disclose the iPad.

Testifying in public hearings before a school board committee in the 2013-14 school year, Loera explained that because the district paid for a portion of the conference, he did not consider the devices a gift. Other district officials testified the devices became district property, not personal gifts.

Tandberg approved a $50,000 payment to Pearson for 50 L.A. Unified employees - including her - to attend the July 2012 Pearson conference, documents show. Pearson's foundation subsidized the rest of the expenses.

Deasy has declined to comment to KPCC since last week, but has pointed out to other media that he was not on the bid selection committees nor did he participate in creating the bid requirements. 

School district officials appointed 40 staff members to review the 19 proposals received by the district in March 2013, records show.

KPCC has found inconsistencies in how district staff scored Pearson's competition for the software. Some products either weren't scored at all or score sheets were lost. At least two popular, gamed-based programs were discarded as “digital textbooks," causing their scores to plummet.

"A number of questions were asked regarding potential conflicts and gifts involving Apple-Pearson and LAUSD decision-makers," board member Monica Ratliff wrote in a report released Tuesday, the culmination of her work leading a committee looking into the project throughout the 2013-14 school year.

As for the meetings, Pearson officials on Monday said they agreed with Deasy's statements to other media that the early communications between the company and L.A. Unified officials related only to planning an eight-classroom pilot program.

However, emails show L.A. Unified officials discussing training 2,000 teachers on the Pearson software and Pearson offered to hire four, full-time staff members to help train teachers – an extraordinary expense an eight-classroom pilot.

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