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LA Schools Leader Cancels iPad Program After Records Show Ties To Vendors

By Howard Blume, Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles schools Superintendent John Deasy has canceled the $1 billion program to provide all students with an iPad after public records showed he and his top deputy had developed a relationship with the vendors two years prior to the bidding.

Recently released emails showed that Deasy and his then-deputy, Jaime Aquino, began meeting and corresponding with top Apple and Pearson executives and discussing the effort to give all students, teachers, and administrators an iPad.

Two local elementary schools became the first to roll out tablet computers in a $1 billion effort to put iPads in the hands of every student in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

The superintendent sent the Board of Education a letter Monday informing members of his decision. The superintendent was coming under mounting criticism over the emails and an internal report obtained by the Los Angeles Times last week that showed a flawed process and a lack of transparency, among other things.

Deasy and his chief deputy developed a special relationship with executives from the companies that won a key technology contract, records show, raising new questions about the bidding process in the effort to provide a computer to every student in the nation’s second-largest school system.

This collaboration between top Los Angeles Unified School District officials and those from tech giant Apple Inc. and Pearson, detailed in public records, underscores findings from an internal school district report, which warned that officials’ actions could have created an impression of unfairness in the bidding.

It appears that the officials began discussing the school system’s effort to supply students computers equipped with online curriculum at least two years before the contract was approved.

In one email, from May 24, 2012, Aquino seems to strategize with higher-ups from Pearson, an international education-services company, on how to ensure that it got the job.

“I believe we would have to make sure that your bid is the lowest one,” wrote Aquino, who was an executive with a Pearson affiliate before joining L.A. Unified.

Deasy was one of the last to participate in that email exchange and made his comments after Aquino’s, which covered several topics.

“Understand your points and we need to work together on this quickly,” Deasy wrote. “I want to not loose (sic) an amazing opportunity and fully recognize our current limits.”

On Sunday, Deasy said that the conversations were only about a “pilot program we did at several schools months before we decided to do a large-scale implementation. We did work closely on this pilot.”

Deasy said he recalled that Aquino also offered another major vendor, Amplify Education Inc., a similar opportunity.

“Nothing was done in any inappropriate way whatsoever,” the superintendent said.

In June 2013, the Board of Education approved a deal with the Apple/Pearson team after senior staff assured members that its proposal was both the least expensive and highest in quality. Pearson provided curriculum; Apple was to supply iPads.

Last year’s iPad rollout at 47 schools was marred by several problems. Students at three campuses, for example, deleted security filters so they could browse the Internet — prompting officials to prohibit the use of the devices outside school. At times, officials also provided conflicting or incorrect answers about the project to a technology committee headed by school board member Monica Ratliff.

Photo via WikiCommons

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Sunset Boulevard Reopens After Massive Water-Main Break

By Howard Blume, Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — Sunset Boulevard reopened early Monday morning when crews finished repaving the thoroughfare after a water-main break created a massive sinkhole and flooded structures at the adjacent UCLA campus, the mayor’s office said.

Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office confirmed Sunset had reopened in time for Monday’s rush hour, but noted that drivers will be required to travel at reduced speeds on the affected part of the street.
The break, which occurred at the juncture of two trunk lines running underneath Sunset, spilled 20 million gallons of water.

The surging stream, which shot upward for hours, created a 25-by-30-foot oval sinkhole about seven feet deep, said Joe Ramallo, spokesman for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

Repairing the water main required more excavation. DWP crews used about 400 tons of sand and 540 tons of crushed aggregate to fill the hole.

Work crews also have been busy at UCLA, which sustained widespread damage. The water stranded about 960 cars in two parking structures and flooded the floor of Pauley Pavilion, the school’s storied basketball arena.

According to a statement from the mayor’s office, the arena will be ready for the UCLA men’s and women’s basketball seasons.

The lower garage levels were submerged to the ceiling in water. No one was injured because the garages filled up gradually, and a water-rescue team was quickly on the scene, helping several people to safety, said UCLA spokesman Tod M. Tamberg.

But 400 were on floors that flooded. Owners can inspect and possibly retrieve them Tuesday.

Even among these, said Tamberg, “there could be cars with water that went halfway up the wheel. The owners may be able to drive those off, and if they do that will be terrific. For others, it will be a tough day emotionally to see their car ruined.”

Water was not fully pumped out till late Friday night, and then crews had to deal with mud and debris.

The cause of the break is under investigation. The L.A. water system has many old underground lines that have been deteriorating.

“At this point, corrosion is suspected,” Ramallo, the DWP spokesman, said.

The utility endured heavy criticism from residents and city officials for the length of time needed to shut off the water. The incident began about 3:30 p.m. Tuesday, and containing the main flow took about 5.5 hours, according to the utility.

After the main leak was stopped, shutting off more than 90 percent of the flow, about 1,000 gallons per minute poured out for a day. Some, if not most, of that discharge was unavoidable, Ramallo said.

“One of the things that can happen when we shut down pipes too fast is that it can damage other pipes,” he said.

The shutdown involved the coordinated control first of three valves, then of nine valves in the area.

“We also had to maintain positive flow and pressure through the pipes to maintain water quality,” Ramallo said. Otherwise, some residents would have had to boil water to make sure it was safe.
Turning the tap on again also has risks because fluctuation in pressure in the surrounding area could cause further leaks and breaks.

“The complexity of this job cannot be overstated,” Ramallo said.

Photo: Los Angeles Times/MCT/Jabin Botsford

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Teachers Union Targets Education Secretary At National Convention

By Howard Blume, Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES -= A national teachers convention on Sunday called for President Barack Obama to put Education Secretary Arne Duncan on an “improvement plan” as a prelude to replacing him.

The action was taken by the American Federation of Teachers, which is meeting in Los Angeles. It represents another marker in the long-running erosion of relations between organizations that represent instructors and the Democratic president they helped to elect twice.

The union stopped short of calling for Duncan’s immediate departure — as had the National Education Association, at its meeting in Denver earlier this month. But the lesser step was no indication of greater regard.

Nate Goldbaum, a Chicago delegate, called Duncan “the man who is taking away all that we hold dear.”

He proposed calling for Duncan’s outright resignation, an idea that attracted strong support until an alternate proposal emerged from Dennis Kelly, president of United Educators of San Francisco.

Kelly offered the improvement-plan language to echo the union’s insistence on protecting due process for teachers who face discipline or dismissal. Union leaders said these rights are under assault.

More broadly, union activists and their allies have accused Duncan of allying with anti-union forces seeking to “privatize” public schools and pave the way for corporate interests to profit from public funding devoted to education.

Duncan’s department has pressured states and school districts to limit teacher job protections and to use student standardized test scores as a substantial portion of a teacher’s evaluation. The goal, Duncan has said, is to develop a higher-quality workforce by helping teachers improve while also making it easier to remove those who don’t.

Duncan has consistently defended himself as a friend of teachers, noting that he supports some form of tenure, while also wanting to make these job protections more difficult to achieve. Duncan applauded a June court ruling that struck down California’s tenure rules and some other teacher job protections.

The anger of the rank and file had the potential to put AFT President Randi Weingarten in an awkward position. She met with Duncan last week and has stressed keeping open channels of communication.

She called putting Duncan on an improvement plan a “constructive approach” with the appropriate symbolism. At the same time, the passion of delegates demonstrated the “sense of betrayal” many felt about Duncan and the administration, she said.

Photo: House Committee on Education and the Workforce Democrats via Flickr

Shark Bite Exposes Uneasy Coexistence Between Fishermen, Beachgoers

By Howard Blume, Los Angeles Times

MANHATTAN BEACH, Calif. — The weekend biting of a long-distance swimmer by a great white shark exposed an uneasy coexistence between fishermen and beachgoers at Manhattan Beach Pier.

The swimmer, Steve Robles, a 50-year-old real estate professional, is expected to recover from the bite he suffered Saturday. The shark is free, but the fishermen involved are not off the hook with swimmers and surfers.

On Sunday, some accused the fishermen of precipitating the encounter by “chumming” — tossing bloody fish guts into the water to attract the shark.

“Us surfers and bodyboarders and swimmers, we despise the fishermen on our pier,” surfer Mimi Miller told ABC News. “It is a nuisance for them to be there. They put us in danger every single day that they’re there.”

Eric Martin, co-director of the Roundhouse Marine Studies Lab and Aquarium at the end of the pier, said the fishermen had not been casting chum into the ocean — just using regular bait.

At a typical beach and pier in Southern California, fishermen, and beachgoers often compete for limited space.

In Manhattan Beach this equation includes juvenile great white sharks, who have settled on that portion of Santa Monica Bay as something of a teen hangout.

Experts say both the fishermen and the swimmers may be exacerbating the risk that the predators pose. The sharks have become a target for some fishermen, who are allowed to hook them and pull them up to the pier’s pilings before having to release them.

Fishermen say beach users sometimes put themselves at risk. The Internet is filling up with videos of close encounters. Long-distance swimmers will grab fishing lines and float in the deeper water where fishermen trolling for bat rays might bring up a great white instead.

“It is not safe for the swimmers at all,” said Jason, one of the fishermen who snagged the shark Saturday morning just before it bit Robles. He spoke on the condition his last name not be published, saying he feared for his safety and that of his family.

The fisherman said he sought a police escort to get to his vehicle because “while we were packing up to leave, people were telling us that surfers and swimmers were ganging up and that we were going to get jumped.”

Manhattan Beach police Sgt. Matt Sabosky could not confirm Jason’s account Sunday, although he said it was possible his officers did provide assistance.

Jason said he and two friends had arrived at the pier about 5 a.m. Their goal was to catch large bat rays and release them. They’d gone to other piers in recent months because fishermen were hooking mainly great whites at Manhattan Beach, he said.

Their bait was frozen sardines, which they attached to their hooks. Nothing was biting; they were bored and thinking of going home, said Jason, when one buddy got a mighty pull. All three took turns gripping the pole for more than 30 minutes.
He said they identified their catch as a shark when it surfaced about 30 yards offshore — and about 10 feet from a surfer, Jason said.

“Our main concern was taking the shark further out to sea before cutting the line — turning his head and pulling him out to sea,” Jason said.

There is disagreement over how soon they could have or should have cut the line.

The hooked shark cut toward a group of about 10 distance swimmers — including Robles — well offshore.

A video, circulating widely online, shows the fishermen seeming to make light of the shark’s approach toward the swimmers until they realize someone had been hurt.

Before the shark was hooked, Avner Papouchado, 47, who was paddle-boarding nearby, said he was struck by the thickness of the fishermen’s line — making it suitable for big-game fish — and how far it extended from the pier.

Juvenile great whites are not known to threaten humans, Martin said. Biting a human — or a sea lion, which is the common prey of adult sharks — could injure a juvenile by breaking off its less rigid “baby” teeth.

The bite was almost certainly the result of an accidental collision between swimmer and agitated shark, Martin said.

Authorities said they had no plans to cite or arrest the fisherman, but no fishing will be allowed until Tuesday.

Photo via WikiCommons

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Key Teacher Job Protections Violate California’s Constitution, Judge Rules

By Howard Blume, Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — A Los Angeles Superior Court judge ruled Tuesday that key job protections for teachers in California are unconstitutional, in a major loss for unions.

The verdict represents a complete victory by attorneys who argued that state laws governing teacher layoffs, tenure and dismissals harm students by making them more likely to suffer from grossly ineffective instruction.

If the preliminary ruling becomes final and is upheld, the effect will be sweeping across California and possibly the nation.

“The law was on our side and the evidence was overwhelming,” said Marcellus McRae, an attorney for the plaintiffs. “Whatever happens, we can’t go backward. The time of defending the status quo and business as usual — those days are over. We have to re-create a system that focuses on placing children’s interests at the forefront.”

Judge Rolf M. Treu ruled, in effect, that it was too easy for teachers to gain strong job protections and too difficult to dismiss those who performed poorly in the classroom. If the ruling stands, California will have to craft new rules for hiring and firing teachers.

During a two-month trial in the case, Vergara vs. California, both sides asserted that the interests of students were at stake.

The Silicon Valley-based group Students Matter brought the lawsuit on behalf of nine students, contending that five laws hindered the removal of ineffective teachers.

The result, attorneys for the plaintiffs said, is a workforce with thousands of “grossly ineffective” teachers, disproportionately hurting low-income and minority students. As a result, the suit argued, the laws violated California’s constitution, which provides for equal educational opportunity.

The laws were defended by the state of California and the two largest teacher unions — the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers. Their attorneys countered that it is not the laws but poor management that is to blame for districts’ failing to root out incompetent instructors.
Job protections benefit students by helping districts recruit and retain teachers, the state and the unions contended.

“This decision today is an attack on teachers, which is a socially acceptable way to attack children,” said Alex Caputo-Pearl, the president-elect of the Los Angeles teachers union. Instead of providing for smaller classes or more counselors, “you attack teacher and student rights.”

Seniority and due process are part of the democratic process, he added. Limiting teacher job protections won’t improve accountability, he said, because that must be accomplished by administrators doing their jobs at schools.

Both sides made their arguments inside and outside of court, fully expecting the case to reach the state Supreme Court.

The effort embodied a “broader communication goal,” said Felix Schein, a spokesman for the group that brought the case. “Our hope is that the trial sets a moral imperative for legislators or other policymakers,” Schein said.

Much of the case was a tutorial on school reform and competing theories of what works best to help students.

The evidence clearly showed that, in some cases, the teacher dismissal process can be long and expensive — and that teachers have more protections against wrongful termination than other state employees.

The plaintiffs’ side argued that the current situation was bad for students, forcing them to endure poor teachers and the state to squander educational resources trying to fire them.

The other side asserted that the rules resulted in fair outcomes for teachers, which helps students in the long run.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Allegations In LA School Molestation Case Grow; Number Of Victims Could Reach 100

By Howard Blume, Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — Previously undisclosed accusations against former Miramonte Elementary School teacher Mark Berndt reveal a more widespread pattern of alleged abuse, with more than 100 possible victims, including some children who said Berndt molested them, according to court documents.

The new allegations about Berndt are included in a 512-page report based on a two-year inquiry by the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department. The report is confidential, but was summarized by Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge John Shepard Wiley in a ruling during a pretrial hearing this week.

These are the first public allegations that the veteran elementary teacher sexually abused students. Wiley indicated that Berndt touched them in a sexual manner and exposed himself. According to the sheriff’s report, he also urged students to touch him, Wiley said.

Berndt’s attorney Manny Medrano said his client is not guilty of the broader abuse alleged in the sheriff’s investigation.

The Miramonte scandal was the biggest child abuse case in the history of the Los Angeles Unified School District. Following Berndt’s arrest on lewd conduct charges in 2012, Superintendent John Deasy closed the campus for two days and reopened it with an entirely new faculty and staff. The district already has paid about $30 million in settlements to 63 children and their families along with millions in legal fees and other costs.

Berndt, 63, was accused of spoon-feeding his semen to blindfolded students as part of what he is said to have called a tasting game. The evidence included photos of students apparently engaged in these acts. He pleaded no contest in November to 23 counts of lewd conduct and received a sentence of 25 years. Berndt’s plea aborted a criminal trial.

Deputy District Attorney Alison Meyers, who handled the Berndt case, said prosecutors were satisfied with achieving a 25-year prison term, which she said virtually is a life sentence. Although additional allegations emerged after the initial charges, prosecutors focused instead on plea bargain negotiations.

Still, 60 former students and about 40 parents are seeking damages in civil cases; the first trial is scheduled for July.

Plaintiffs’ lawyers have been battling L.A. Unified and the Sheriff’s Department for access to the law enforcement inquiry and other materials. The litigation prompted another disclosure this week: The school system in 2008 destroyed about 2,000 reports containing abuse allegations.

The documents are copies of the Suspected Child Abuse Report, which describe alleged incidents in which a child may have been harmed. District employees are required to report suspected abuse, and these forms are submitted confidentially to the police or the L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services. From the late 1980s through 2008, employees were asked to provide copies to the district as well, said L.A. Unified spokesman Sean Rossall.

But in 2008, officials determined that state law banned them from possessing these forms because of privacy rules; they ordered them destroyed, Rossall said. He added that essential information should have been fully duplicated within internal district reports.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys challenged this explanation.

“This revelation deserves a serious inquiry by an outside agency to get to the facts of how this happened and why the destruction was kept a secret,” said attorney John Manly, who represents some of the alleged victims. “LAUSD’s unapologetic and transparently ridiculous justification for the shredding is shocking.”

In the months after Berndt’s arrest, Deasy decried poor past recordkeeping on the part of L.A. Unified and vowed changes. These efforts included requiring administrators to scour old files and assemble the information into a central database. He said no internal reports could be found regarding Berndt.

Police had investigated Berndt in the past but never filed charges.

In the civil case, L.A. Unified is liable for damages if it could have or should have known about abuse.

The reports were collected by the district’s Child Abuse Prevention Office, which shut down in 2002 when its director retired. The purpose of that office was staff awareness training, not investigation, Rossall said. The office used the reports to compile data for the county. The reports covered all forms of mistreatment, not just sexual misconduct. On the Sheriff’s Department documents, Wiley ruled that he would hand over substantial portions to attorneys suing L.A. Unified. The Sheriff’s Department indicated that it would not challenge the release of the reports.

Such investigations typically are confidential to protect children and witnesses. The ruling allows children and families not involved in the lawsuits to request that their identities remain confidential. Wiley said he would honor their wishes because “the main purpose of this ruling is to protect children. … They, and their parents, have a constitutional privacy right to decide whether to involve themselves in this case,” he wrote.

The judge reached a different conclusion regarding adult witnesses outside of affected families. Their names will be provided to attorneys. Wiley’s summary included the most specific details released about the Berndt investigation.

“Berndt touched students in many ways, ranging from highly assaulting” their genitals and breasts “to other contacts with less obviously abusive implications,” Wiley wrote in the summary of the sheriff’s findings. “Berndt exposed his genitalia to students and others, by sitting in short shorts without underwear and spreading his legs in front of students.”

Wiley said the sheriff’s investigation found that Berndt induced children to touch his genitalia in addition to his arms and legs.

Photo: Amy The Nurse via Flickr