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Election 2015: iPad controversy looms large in LAUSD District 3 board race

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As the city's March 3 primary election draws near, Los Angeles Unified school board candidates are blasting incumbents for the controversial iPad program.

Opponents sharply criticized the $1.3 billion bond-funded program at a debate Tuesday in West San Fernando Valley, where District 3 school board member Tamar Galatzan was elected in 2007.

"Galatzan said the district is going in the right direction," declared candidate Carl Petersen, a parent and businessman. "I don’t know how anyone can look at the events of the past year and come to that conclusion."

RELATED: LAUSD District 5 school board candidates face off in debate

The program attracted national attention last December when the FBI raided district offices and carted off 20 boxes of bids, evaluations and correspondences with executives at Apple and its subcontractor Pearson, the manufacturer of the learning software loaded on to each device. The investigation is ongoing.

At the debate, teachers dressed in dark windbreakers with FBI plastered on the back in protest to Galatzan's support of the program. (They have not held similar demonstrations at election events in East Los Angeles' District 5, where Bennett Kayser, a teacher union ally, is running for re-election.)

Tom Richards, a Granada Hills parent, said he considers the iPad program a central issue as he weighs candidates.

"I think it's absolutely ridiculous," Richards said. "I don't believe that's a good way to spend the money that they have. Looking at some really fundamental needs — we don't have a librarian, but we want to give iPads?" 

Galatzan was an early advocate for more technology in the classroom; it was her goal even before the iPad was on the market.

"There is a whole world out there that can be accessed through technology, and we need to take advantage of that," Galatzan told KPCC.

Her advocacy of technology hasn't always been controversial. Galatzan points to her 2010 initiative to fund school computer labs with a settlement from Microsoft.

The school board's support of the iPad program varied the first year, but waned in August after KPCC published a series of emails showing district administrators had close ties with Pearson, calling into question whether the bidding process was fair. Problems with the rollout of the devices and the effectiveness of the software they contained also eroded support for the program.

Still, school board members unanimously approved more iPad purchases after the FBI investigation came to light. Superintendent Ramon Cortines said the tablets were necessary for new digital state tests scheduled this spring and offered to purchase them under a different contract with Apple to avoid complications involving the federal probe.

If the candidates' positions are a measure of support for the program, it's unpopular at best.  All of Galatzan's opponents are against it. 

When asked in a KPCC election survey conducted if he supported the iPad program, Scott Schmerelson, a retired administrator and District 3 contender, responded: "Not when you are paying for them from LAUSD Bond Money! The taxpayers generously supported the bond issue with the belief that the money would be used to repair and modernize our schools." 

Candidate Ankur Patel said in his answer to the survey, "I oppose the LAUSD’s iPad program. Throughout the program, important questions were not asked enough, and when they were, they were not answered properly."

Filiberto Gonzalez, another Galatzan challenger, said of the iPad project: "It was a mistake and ill-conceived from the very beginning. As was noted in the report by the U.S. Department of Education last month, the Common Core Technology Project (iPad program) lacked 'established metrics of success' and 'was difficult to show the impact of the investment.'

Elizabeth Badger Bartels is also running for the District 3 seat, but did not respond to the survey by deadline.

For more information on the school board candidates' positions and their backgrounds, read KPCC's 2015 Los Angeles primary election guide.

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