In a recent story, I wrote about why teachers and parents are split about whether new classroom technology is worthwhile and should have been prioritized ahead of other needed school repairs.

There’s another aspect of the debate: San Diego Unified also has faced legal questions about whether it followed the rules when it bought its latest batch of whiteboards.

When San Diego Unified was deciding which company would get millions of dollars to install flashy new interactive whiteboards in hundreds of classrooms across the school district, it told the companies it only wanted one specific brand of the boards — Promethean — to match other boards that were already in schools.

Government agencies can pick out a specific brand under certain circumstances:

  • If it is only available from one company;
  • If it needs to match other products;
  • If the agency is coping with an emergency;
  • Or if it is running a field test.

The rules are specific so agencies can’t just select specific brands on a whim — something that could leave them vulnerable to favoritism or behind-the-scenes deals.

The school district said it made sense to pick Promethean as its only product so that it would match existing boards. San Diego Unified had earlier installed 97 of the boards at several new schools. But the same reason could have just as easily been applied to another brand, called SMART boards. There are 115 such boards in the school district.

The school district originally planned to replace the SMART boards with Promethean boards; it later changed its mind and said schools could choose to keep functioning SMART boards.

One outside attorney who specializes in cases dealing with public bidding questioned whether the school district stretched the rules when it singled out Promethean. Attorney Jason Thornton of Marks, Golia & Finch, said if government agencies used the same reasoning as San Diego Unified, they could block companies from competing for business. A school district could equip one or two schools with a specific brand of a product, then match other schools to the same equipment.

San Diego Unified argued that Promethean “uniquely met the district’s requirements,” according to school district attorney Sandra Chong. The district evaluated the boards before the first, smaller installation. It found several benefits to the Promethean board: It had a bigger screen. It used an electronic pen instead of a touchscreen, which would prevent kids from accidentally bumping it. It could be moved up and down for children in wheelchairs. And officials said the chosen brand was more durable.

With other boards, “a kid could take a pair of scissors and cut the board and it’s over,” said Darryl LaGace, the district’s chief information and technology officer. “The Promethean could be scratched and it wouldn’t affect its use.” Chong said those reasons also mattered when the school district decided that Promethean was the only usable brand for equipping the rest of the schools with whiteboards.

But Thornton said the fact that San Diego Unified had earlier decided Promethean boards were preferable is irrelevant to the later contract that covered more schools. “The whole purpose of the statute is so that the school district doesn’t just (use the rules on picking a brand to) pick the one they like better,” he said.

Picking Promethean alone also had an impact when San Diego Unified sought a company to install the technology. If the school district hadn’t designated that schools needed a specific brand of boards, installation companies would be able to compete for the work using any comparable brand.

Instead, San Diego Unified ended up ruling out the two companies that an internal team otherwise ranked highest because they didn’t have existing contracts to install Promethean products — the only brand the school district would accept. Pete Spencer, a local businessman who wanted to install the whiteboards, sued the school district, challenging whether that was a fair reason to designate a specific brand. He settled with San Diego Unified and the two winning installation companies for $42,000 earlier this year.

But SMART complained that it had been unfairly shut out. Patric Nagel, vice president of sales at SMART, alleged in a letter to the school board that former Superintendent Terry Grier had pressured employees to choose Promethean. Former San Diego Unified employees said they were well aware that Grier preferred the brand, but knew of no wrongdoing.

“Terry Grier had a favorite. But I was not in any meetings where he said, ‘Let’s find a way to let Promethean win,’” said Geno Flores, the former deputy superintendent.

Grier responded last spring to SMART, saying the accusations were “without basis in fact” and sour grapes from a losing company. He didn’t take part in the selection process, he wrote. In a recent interview, Grier said he might have said that Promethean boards should be installed in classrooms, but that was a meaningless verbal slip, like the Southern habit of calling every soda a Coke.


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