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Dumb and Dumber

Questionable means to achieve questionable ends are the all-too-frequent shadowy traffic of government. But four members of the L.A. school board last week tried this game in broad sunlight. They ramrodded through a $6.3 million software contract, without competitive bidding, without any comparison of alternative products or strategies, and over the vehement objections of Superintendent Roy Romer and his senior staff.

Then, this week, just as suddenly, the school board tried to rectify things by rescinding its vote. Board members salvaged the money, but the state of their dignity is another matter.

The original vote occurred at the direct behest of state Senator Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles), who has apparently begun a second career as a lobbyist even before term limits force him from office in December.

How shaky was this deal? For one thing, the contract, for an adult literacy program, was for software that doesn’t yet exist, even though Polanco implied otherwise in statements before the school board. In addition, Polanco apparently misled the district about which company would provide this service. In his remarks and behind-the-scenes lobbying, Polanco named the well-established Reality Based Learning in Redmond, Washington, when, in fact, he was pushing the contract for a different company, Reality Based Learning California. (The link between the companies is that they have a common founder and a similar name.) The California company, as of now, has no product and a staff comprised of its owner and two employees; its registered address is the law office of a longtime Polanco associate. ”The senator‘s endgame,“ offered Polanco’s chief aide, Bill Mabie, ”was creating a program that would address the needs of a constituency that is completely and totally underserved.“

The deal invited all sorts of sordid analysis about the four board members who went along, starting with David Tokofsky, who takes pride in understanding complex deals and ferreting out hidden, scandalous information. The obvious, cynical explanation of his vote would be that Tokofsky is trying to curry favor with Polanco, a powerful Latino politician whose backing might help Tokofsky get re-elected. Tokofsky‘s district is about to acquire, through redistricting, a Latino voting majority.

Tokofsky, then, could at least assert a geopolitical rationale, though he denies it. But what about Genethia Hayes? In 1999, her campaign to change district ”culture“ included themes about the importance of honoring the proper process of government. Back then, she insisted that board members should never micro-manage senior staff. And she also made hay about a contract, for a comparatively meager $700,000, that didn’t go out to bid.

Then there‘s Julie Korenstein, who has been criticized in the past for abstaining on important votes, a position she defended by saying she didn’t have enough vital information about matters under consideration. This time, however, it was full speed ahead.

The last vote was that of Jose Huizar, a political neophyte who joined the board last July. He perhaps could chalk up the episode as a beginner‘s misstep, especially if Polanco assured him that veteran board members also were going along.

But newcomer Marlene Canter wasn’t swayed. She used to operate a teacher-training company and knows something about the bidding process. Nor did trustees Mike Lansing or Caprice Young take the bait.

The four who backed Polanco have offered various explanations: They were misled; they were impressed by what they knew of the program; or Romer was taking too long to tackle adult literacy, for which there is available state funding.

Board members have sometimes accused Superintendent Romer, the former governor of Colorado, of overusing his political wiles, of being too much the politician. But this week, the board majority made Romer look like a statesmansaint by comparison. One senior staffer noted that he could not recall a similar instance of the school board plucking a specific vendor from the ether and handing that company a multimillion-dollar contract over the objections of the superintendent.

Polanco has been caught at this before, by the L.A. Times, which in 1999 laid out his involvement in allegedly muscling city-attorney contracts for his friend J. Arnoldo Beltran. Last week‘s deal also could have benefited Beltran, whose office is the listed address of the start-up software firm. But those earlier goings-on with Beltran happened in outlying cities, outside the usual radar range of watchdogs. This deal unfolded in prime time, that is, in L.A. at a televised board meeting. Both dailies pounced.

How brain dead was the four-member board majority? ”I see a great opportunity here for parody,“ commented Jennifer W. Solis, a 10th grader at Belmont High, who writes an education column for School Wise Press. ”Let’s get rid of the entire procurement process, and save millions on salaries, benefits and office space. Anyone who wants to sell something to the LAUSD can simply meet in a secluded place with as many board members as it takes to secure four votes. Each board member can have a page on the LAUSD Web site where interested vendors can submit bids (a la Priceline) for the quid pro quo required for that member‘s support.“

On the bright side, at least the school system is turning out future graduates with more horse sense than the elected representatives.