The way in which the San Diego Unified School District chose a specific brand of technological tools has drawn the interest of the FBI, according to a local businessman who sued the school district over it.

Pete Spencer, president of a La Mesa company that installs computerized whiteboards, filed a lawsuit against the school district last year alleging it had inappropriately picked a specific brand of boards for its classrooms. Spencer says he was visited this month by the FBI, which is already investigating whiteboard purchases in Florida and Iowa.

Federal investigators have sought information in the other school districts on the purchase of computerized whiteboards exclusively from a British company named Promethean. Federal prosecutors sent a subpoena to Sarasota County schools in February asking for documents detailing how the boards were picked. The U.S. attorneys also sought information in the Iowa district that the former Sarasota chief now heads.

Like the other school systems, San Diego chose to only allow the Promethean brand of whiteboards in its classrooms. That meant that companies vying to install the boards had to purchase and install Promethean, not any other brand on the market. Here and across the country, selecting a specific product has raised questions and stirred up debate about fair competition in awarding work in schools.

A Promethean spokeswoman said she was unaware of any investigation in San Diego. She said the company is cooperating and believes it is a witness, not a target, in the Florida and Iowa investigations.

San Diego Unified is undertaking a sweeping technological makeover for schools that include classroom sound systems, laptops for each child and computerized whiteboards that can pull up web pages and interactive lessons. Two Promethean resellers, Vector Resources and Logical Choice Technologies, won a $50 million contract to install Promethean whiteboards in San Diego Unified schools last summer under a $2.1 billion bond to renovate and build schools.

“Our process was totally above board,” said Bernie Rhinerson, the school district spokesman. “I have no idea what’s going on in Sarasota — but it has nothing to do with us.”

After Promethean was chosen, Spencer argued he was unfairly shut out of competing to install the new technology because he didn’t have an existing contract to obtain and install Promethean boards. He settled with the school district and the two winning installation companies for $42,000 earlier this year.

Spencer said he was contacted earlier this month by an FBI agent who then visited his office and asked for copies of his legal documents, including the settlement agreement, letters between his attorney and San Diego Unified and the notification the school district published seeking whiteboard installers.

“She said, ‘I can’t tell you whether we’re doing an investigation or not. But I’ll take everything you’ve got,’” Spencer said. FBI spokesman Darrell Foxworth verified that the agent that Spencer named exists, but he could not confirm whether an investigation is taking place.

Former Superintendent Terry Grier, now leading the Houston school system, said he had not received any subpoenas or requests for information about the Promethean boards, which were selected during his tenure in San Diego. Neither has San Diego Unified, said its attorney, Mark Bresee.

Government agencies can only specify a particular brand of products in limited cases that are specified under state law, such as matching other products or coping with an emergency. Doing so can be a quicker alternative to seeking bids for pencils, flooring or other products. But the rules are specific, meant to avoid at least the appearance of favoritism for a chosen company.

The school district argued that it needed to match Promethean to other whiteboards that had already been installed in new schools. Technology chief Darryl LaGace said his staff had earlier evaluated the boards for a smaller installation and found advantages to Promethean over another brand.

But critics say that if all government agencies followed the same reasoning as San Diego Unified, they could simply block companies from competing for business. For instance, the city could equip a few libraries with a chosen product, then insist on matching all other libraries to it.

Spencer wasn’t the only person to complain about the process: A competing whiteboard company alleged in a letter to the school board that Grier had pressured employees to choose Promethean. Grier denied the allegations in an interview earlier this year. Former employees said Grier clearly had a favorite in Promethean, but didn’t think he’d tipped the scales in its favor.

In Iowa and Florida, federal prosecutors have sought from the school districts lists of salespeople and communications regarding the Promethean boards exchanged by a group of top school officials and “all transactions and activity related to the negotiation(s) and acquisition” of the boards, according to a subpoena. Beyond those requests, it’s unclear exactly what the investigations are focused on.

But the public debate there, as in San Diego, has centered on how school districts chose Promethean and Promethean alone. In Florida, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported that former superintendent Gary Norris argued that the school system didn’t need to go out to bid because at the time, Promethean was the only company that made the computerized boards.

Norris, who later moved to an Iowa school district, argued that singling out Promethean was also justified there, the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier reported.

Tucson schools also chose Promethean as their sole whiteboard brand and used a state contract to obtain the boards, something that San Diego did too. The Arizona attorney general found that the Tucson school district violated state laws when it bought boards without approval from the school board and skirted the need to competitively bid for some items.

The Arizona investigation also found that Promethean had paid for hotel rooms, meals and an iPod for Tucson school district employees after it had already been awarded work in its schools, “in blatant violation of Arizona law.” The school district was fined and several officials were sanctioned; Promethean spokeswoman Jodie Pozo-Olano said no action was taken against the company.

Outside experts who sit on an oversight committee for the $2.1 billion school renovation bond say they’re watching the headlines from elsewhere, but haven’t seen any evidence of wrongdoing here.

“If you think there might be fire, first you look for smoke,” said attorney John Stump, who leads a subcommittee devoted to audits. “We haven’t even smelled any smoke yet. But we’re watching.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.

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