Fixing Our Priorities; or, Writing Blank Checks to Bureaucracies Is Always a Bad Idea

Jun 4, 2014 | Greggory Moore | Moore Lowdown
Fixing Our Priorities; or, Writing Blank Checks to Bureaucracies Is Always a Bad Idea

image by: Mikhail Nilov

Los Angeles County voters awarded schools billions of dollars for upgrades and repairs. But half a decade later administrators are supplying students with iPads, even though the backlog for basic repairs runs into the tens of thousands.

If you don't like the technology train, best to get out of the way, because there is no doubt that ours is an age of computers and the Internet. As such, it is only right that we educate our children about how to get on board.

For all that, what the Los Angeles Unified School District is doing with funds voters gave the district is an example of how off-track a bureaucracy can get if given too much autonomy.

In 2008, L.A. County residents overwhelmingly passed Measure Q, awarding the LAUSD $7 billion "[t]o improve student health, safety and educational quality, shall the Los Angeles Unified School District: continue repair/upgrade of aging/deteriorating classrooms, restrooms; upgrade fire/earthquake safety; reduce asbestos, lead paint, air pollution, water quality hazards; build/upgrade specialized classrooms students need to meet job/college requirements; improve classroom Internet access."

Local media generally urged voters to reject Measure Q. The Los Angeles Daily News noted that the LAUSD still had almost $6 billion left over from $14 billion in bond issues (plus matching funds) voters had given the district during the previous decade, money earmarked years' worth of remaining projects and for which area homeowners were "still paying hundreds of dollars apiece each year for the bonds." Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Times warned against trusting the LAUSD bureaucracy with so much money for unspecified expenditures.

"Without a plan that justifies and guides the expenditures, […] there is too much opportunity for board members and bureaucrats in this highly politicized district to push pet projects," wrote the Times. "[A]nd unlike his predecessor, […] Supt. David L. Brewer has not displayed the leadership skills needed to keep that from happening."

It seems the Times has proven prophetic, as the LAUSD has earmarked $1 billion to provide every one of its students with an iPad, even as many district schools are in desperate need of basic repairs. How many? Reportedly in the neighborhood of 50,000, with the budget for repairs slashed 65% since 2008, despite the infusion of bond money.

It's an issue being brought into focus by Repairs Not iPads, a Facebook community founded in December 2013 as a clearinghouse for teachers and community members to document specific ways in which the LAUSD is failing to make basic repairs while spending that $1 billion on less necessary accoutrements.

Pictures of exposed wiring, dilapidated structures, mold, broken toilets and drinking fountains, roof leaks, and termite damage/infestation are just some of the documented problems. And while John Deasy, Brewer's successor at superintendant of the LAUSD, says it's possible to both make the much-needed repairs and purchase the iPads and accompanying curricula, as boardmember Stuart Magruder noted at a March 2014 LAUSD Bond Oversight Committee meeting, monetary expenditures are a zero-sum game.

"The $14 billion [LAUSD Maintenance & Operations Director] Roger Finstad needs for long-term maintenance, we don't have," Magruder said. "The $40 billion that [LAUSD Director of Facilities Contracts] Mark Hovatter needs for implementing the master plan and keeping our schools up to date, we don't have. So a billion dollars on iPads is a problem. At some point we need to recognize that the voters funded these efforts with an expectation that we have a proper fiduciary duty to do what they think we're doing. I disagree strongly with the idea that many voters thought a construction bond fund was going to pay for technology."

In return for voicing his concerns, the LAUSD recently voted to drop Magruder from the Bond Oversight Committee.

This may not be the first time the LAUSD has taken steps to blind eyes critical of the iPad program. In January 2014 Board of Education President Richard Vladovic announced he would be disbanding the program's watchdog committee, even though, as the Times notes, the committee "raised or unearthed issues that senior administrators sometimes fumbled, [such as the] providing [of] incomplete, inaccurate and conflicting information." And while Vladovic promised that necessary oversight of the project would continue, Repairs Not iPads sees his assurances as hollow.

One possible rationale for the LAUSD's desiring a lack of oversight was advanced in by the Daily News in its 2008 editorial: to fuel the bureaucracy.

"[The LAUSD wants] to keep the bureaucracy of 1,200 that's dedicated to spending bond money from 'going away,'" the Daily News opined. "They don't want to 'break up the team' of 1,200 employees and 800 consultants who've been working on the bond-funded construction program. It's clear that the LAUSD has just gotten used to this revenue source and is loathe to see it end in a few years' time."

The results of an anonymous survey of LAUSD educators and administrative personnel seem to validate the Daily News theory. As reported by the Times in December 2013—prior to the founding of Repairs Not iPads and the increased attention on the needed repairs—90% of administrators favored continuing the iPad program, compared with only 36% of teachers.

Since then, even many voices supporting the iPad program in theory have raised concerns about its execution. For example, in December 2013 the LA Weekly reported being impressed with the interactive curriculum being offered via the iPads and took the media in general to task for not "seriously report[ing] on how the actual curriculum program works as it gains ground in real classrooms."

But less than two months later, the LA Weekly published a follow-up story admitting that the people behind Repairs Not iPads—who are mostly teachers—have legitimate gripes.

Former LAUSD Supt. William J. Johnston goes further, saying that the use of the bond money for iPads is illegal. “Voters approved the school bonds because they needed schools built, schools repaired, school equipment updated," Johnston wrote to the Bond Oversight Committee in February. "They did not vote for iPads[. …] iPads are known to last for approximately three years. New developments and technology will make them obsolete, requiring replacements. School bonds are designed to buy property, build schools, equip schools with lasting equipment. School bonds are paid for over a 25-year period.”

It may be years before the ultimate ramifications of the approval of Measure Q can be seen. But already it seems clear that voters erred in providing administrators with what the Times called "a blank check." It's a cautionary tale of ceding too much power to the powers-that-be.

About the Author:

Except for a four-month sojourn in Comoros (a small island nation near the northwest of Madagascar), Greggory Moore has lived his entire life in Southern California.  Currently he resides in Long Beach, CA, where he engages in a variety of activities, including playing in the band MOVE, performing as a member of RIOTstage, and, of course, writing. 

His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, OC Weekly, Daily Kos, the Long Beach Post, Random Lengths News, The District Weekly,, and a variety of academic and literary journals.  HIs first novel, The Use of Regret, was published in 2011, and he is currently at work on his follow-up.  For more information:



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