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$11M APS Book Deal Stirred Controversy

Rowan Ellington, 10, and his mother Jennifer Brown-Ellington explore the Discovery Education Network on a computer at Zuni Elementary at an open house last year. (greg sorber/journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Albuquerque Public schools took the dive into digital education in a big way this summer, signing a seven-year contract with Discovery Education to supply “tech books” for science, health and social sciences.

But the $11.3 million no-bid contract wasn’t without grumbling and criticism, despite unanimous approval of the school board.

Some teachers cheered. Others seethed. And then the rumors started.

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Among them:

♦ The person driving the contract, now retired school system Academic Officer Linda Sink, was going to work for Discovery Education.

♦ Discovery Education had an “in” with Superintendent Winston Brooks.

♦ The contract was secret and illegal.

♦ No traditional textbooks would be available.

♦ The Discovery materials didn’t match up well against the competition.

Taking them in order:

♦ Sink says, and the company confirms, that she never sought a job with Discovery and wasn’t offered one. Although he didn’t ask her, Brooks was sufficiently concerned that he called his “contact” at Discovery and warned against hiring Sink.

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♦ Brooks has done consulting work for Discovery through a firm that hires school superintendents around the country and puts them together in panels to give feedback to companies that want to sell products to school systems. He said that work had nothing to do with the APS contract.

♦ The contract isn’t secret. It was provided to the Journal in response to a request under the Inspection of Public Records Act and appears to be a typical technology license contract that state and local governments enter for copyrighted or proprietary computer software and support. The state system for buying instructional materials allows for no-bid contracts and copyrighted material to be exempted by law from the state procurement system.

♦ Textbooks will be available while teachers are taught how to use the new “tech-books” and beyond. The tech books under the contract are for students in kindergarten through 12th grade in science, social science and health. The contract requires training in the use of the technology for all teachers using them.

♦ Sink says criticism of the Discovery materials during the evaluation was unfair because they were inappropriately included in a comparison with traditional textbooks — something she said wasn’t supposed to happen.

Rumors, accusations

The strained relationship between Brooks and Sink appears to have played a role in the behind-the-scenes rumors and accusations.

Sink was acting superintendent and applied for the superintendent position when Brooks was chosen to run the district four years ago. Brooks subsequently appointed her as the district’s chief academic officer until her abrupt retirement in August. That was about the time the school board approved the Discovery Education contract.

Brooks tape recorded an interview with the Journal for this story in case of future “litigation.”

Despite their feelings toward each other, both are strong supporters of the school district’s move into digital tech books and say that within a few years the technology will be the main instructional support for all teachers.

Digital tech books include online videos, instructional games and other tools not available with traditional textbooks. The Discovery Education program also includes student assessment and teacher training over the seven-year-contract.

Sink’s role

Sink’s retirement was made public a week before the school board unanimously approved the Discovery Education contract, which APS emails show she was pushing hard.

Rumors that she was going to work for Discovery Education reached Brooks, who said in an interview that he was concerned about the public perception if Discovery Education hired Sink.

He didn’t call Sink, but he did call Discovery.

“I called my contact at Discovery and told them that (hiring her) would be a big mistake,” Brooks said in an interview with the Journal.

Sink in a telephone interview said she wasn’t surprised Brooks didn’t call her, given the strain between them but she would have told him the rumors weren’t true.

Brooks, who wasn’t directly involved in the details of the procurement process, said he called his contact to express his concern.

“At a minimum, under no circumstances should she be assigned to the APS account and it could mean termination of our contract.”

“I was born at noon,” Brooks said. “But not at noon yesterday.”

He added, “I wasn’t trying to blackball her.”

But Sink says she never applied for a job with Discovery Education and was never offered one. Christina Scripps, who oversees media relations for the company, agreed.

“I’m retired at this point,” Sink said. “I’m looking into consulting at some point, but I’m retired.”

“There are always rumors,” she said. “Whenever you move into something new, it upsets people.”

Brooks consulting

Brooks is a consultant to the Education Research & Development Institute, which counts Discovery Education among its 200-plus clients.

Brooks and other superintendents are brought in for sessions in which they hear presentations by textbook publishers, computer firms, software companies, food suppliers and other companies.

He is paid $500, in addition to expenses, by the institute for each panel he sits on.

“I have been on Discovery’s panel twice in four years,” Brooks said. “It’s about telling the business partners how to improve their products.”

The school board was aware of Brooks’ deal with the institute and approved giving him up to 10 paid days a year to work on the consulting panels.

He said sitting in on the two panel presentations by Discovery Education had nothing to do with the company’s current contract.

“Discovery was already doing business with APS before I got here,” Brooks said.

“Some science teachers had been using Discovery Ed — or pieces of it — for years at APS on an individual basis,” he said.

Schools were using library funds to buy portions of the Discovery Education programs.

No bid

The Discovery Education contract wasn’t put out to a formal bid. State procurement law exempts copyrighted material like textbooks from going through traditional bid procedures.

Sink said the district talked with other companies but didn’t see their offerings as being as fully developed as those of Discovery Education.

Instead, the district and Discovery Education conducted a pilot program at two middle schools and 37 other classrooms around the district.

“They worked with us to bring what they offered in line with common core curriculum,” Sink said. “That was important. Plus we were able to evaluate the entire program over time.”

Textbooks go through an evaluation by the State Public Education Department, which provides a list of approved textbooks to local districts. Discovery Education materials didn’t go through that process and were not on the approved list.

School districts are required to spend 50 percent of the money appropriated by the state on the texts and educational materials approved through the state system. Individual school districts have discretion over the remaining 50 percent.

“We worked with the Public Education Department to make sure we were following the law in negotiating with Discovery,” Sink said.

A PED spokesman confirmed that the department conferred with APS on the Discovery Education contract.

Sink said the move into digital tech books was opposed by some teachers and even some members of her own staff.

The Discovery Education tech books were included in a teacher evaluation that also had traditional science and social science textbooks approved by the Public Education Department.

The tech books didn’t fare well.

One letter to the Journal claimed the Discovery Education tech books didn’t come close to lining up with state or national standards. But Sink said the Discovery Education tech books weren’t supposed to be included in the evaluation process.

And the evaluators were not presented with all aspects of the Discovery Education program, Sink said.

She said someone on her staff who opposed the move to digital textbooks included part of the Discovery Education program in the evaluation.

“That evaluation was for traditional textbooks so we would have a list of approved texts that teachers could draw on and the district could buy,” Sink said.

She said the district “took a middle ground” so teachers could have access to traditional text books to supplement the Discovery Education program.

“But not every kid is going to have a textbook,” Sink said. Sink said, that under the Discovery Education contract, teachers get training each of the seven years of the contract. With traditional text books, training is available for the first year the texts are available.

Brooks said he was comfortable with the decision because other major school districts, like Clark County, Nev., and Miami-Dade, Fla., had entered into contracts with Discovery Education.

APS says the average traditional textbook costs $75 while the tech books average out to around $43.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal


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