Some species of jellyfish can grow to be very big. They are also said to be brainless and, to the unwary, can be hazardous. To taxpayers, this is also a fair description of the Los Angeles Unified School District.
The massive district, geographically the nation’s largest and second in enrollment, covers all or part of 31 communities in addition to the city of Los Angeles. Its budget is larger than at least 18 states and, unfortunately, possesses a well-earned reputation for horrible management. One has to look back only a few years for prominent examples.
In the late 1990s, the district set about building the nation’s most expensive high school on real estate that turned out to be contaminated with hazardous chemicals. Mitigating this problem added years to the completion of the project and millions to the taxpayers’ bill. Although the evidence suggested that this boondoggle was the result of incompetence, ignorance and outright corruption, LAUSD officials uniformly asserted the Bart Simpson defense: “I didn’t do it, nobody saw me and you can’t prove a thing.” Incredibly, no one was ever held accountable for this fiscal fiasco.
Since then, with the support of campaign funds from contractors who profit when schools spend money, the district has been able to convince voters to approve five separate bonds totaling $20 billion, with a repayment cost of close to $40 billion, to fund a massive school building program. While the district was placing bonds on the ballot at a rate of almost one every two years, enrollment has actually declined by 10 percent, raising the question of what will be done with the vacant classrooms if this trend continues. But as usual, no one in authority seems to want to address the possibility that the district may be building, and taxpayers are being charged for, classrooms that aren’t needed.
The latest prominent example of LAUSD’s brain-dead management style is the $1 billion program to supply all students with iPads. Before evaluating the wisdom of this move, it should be noted that even though the district would need hundreds of thousands of units, officials failed to negotiate a better than retail price.
Now that the program has begun, officials are actually surprised that some of the $700 iPads have gone missing and students have shown the ability to “jailbreak” — a term describing the process of removing limitations on the use of these Apple units. These students are now able to play games and surf the net freely, instead focusing on assigned studies.
The response by the district to the loss and misuse of the iPads is unfathomable. Some schools have confiscated the units; others have prohibited them from being taken home by students, while still others have done nothing. It remains unclear who is responsible for replacing the missing iPads. And yet the superintendent has stated that he still supports the program, such as it is.
The goal of the district may be to expand the use of technology in education, but the thinking that went into the rollout of the iPad program appears to rival the thought process of a jellyfish. Who in their right mind would not anticipate that many of these expensive portable computers would be lost, damaged, or stolen? Was it even considered that young people might be targeted by neighborhood bullies and gang members who now know they carry these expensive devices? Worst of all, someone could get hurt.
And how about school officials underestimating the ability of students to hack the firewall barrier placed on the units to limit their use to school work? Those who live in the real world know that all it takes is one bright student to figure it out and the information will be spread like wildfire.
This $1 billion program is being paid for by bond money, which means that taxpayers will be repaying $2 billion for this ill-conceived, poorly implemented and supervised program.
Now that the money has been spent, will taxpayers ever see the difficulties overcome and that the long-term results improve student scores? Only if you think a jellyfish can master calculus.
Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights.