Leonardo Castañeda | inewsource
Back in 2012, the Sweetwater Union High School District — like a lot of other school districts in the United States — decided to buy Apple iPads for its students. The tablets, which at the time had only been around for a couple of years, were supposed to prepare students for a world ever more reliant on technology.
Since then, Sweetwater has bought 30,600 iPads, enough to give everyone in a city the size of Imperial Beach a tablet and still have a few thousand left over. inewsource asked the district for information on how much it has spent on the devices and is awaiting a reply. The most recent hint at the size of the expenditure comes from a May 2015 school board agenda. It shows by that point the district had spent $14.3 million on 20,600 devices.
In June, inewsource reported that the vast majority of the first iPads bought in 2012 for Sweetwater’s seventh-graders were no longer in use. Most were classified as lost, stolen or damaged, according to the district.
Since that story, the school district released new information about those original iPads, as well as those it bought in later years, saying about 10,300 of them have been sold or will be sold.
Selling iPads was never mentioned as a possibility to inewsource over its weeks of reporting. When and how was the decision made?
We’re continuing to dig, but in the meantime, here are five key takeaways from inewsource’s reporting on Sweetwater’s tablets:
1. Why should you care about Sweetwater’s iPads?
The devices are part of Sweetwater’s 1 to 1 Initiative, originally intended to put a tablet in the hand of every student in the district. How the district paid for the devices was an issue when the program started.
In the first year, the district bought devices in part by using money from bond interest earnings and Mello-Roos taxes, both of which are supposed to be spent on things that have a shelf-life of five years or more. Some questioned whether that was a realistic expectation.
Because of the controversy over where the money came from for the iPads, the district switched in following years to using its general fund, which can pay for anything from electronics to teachers’ salaries.
2. So what did happen to the iPads?
Data the district provided to inewsource on March 23 shows it bought 7,952 iPads in 2012. All but 704 of the devices were classified as “out of inventory.” The main reason: They were damaged. That raises questions about how realistic the five-year shelf life required by the funding source was.
A similar pattern is evident for all of the iPads Sweetwater has bought, including with general fund money. Out of a total of 30,600 iPads, a little more than half of them are still in the hands of students and teachers. The rest are “out of inventory.” A few — about 2 percent — were lost or stolen. Almost 43 percent were classified as damaged.
3. When did Sweetwater decide to sell some of its outdated iPads?
The quick answer: We don’t know yet.
inewsource published its first story on the iPads on June 22.
Nearly two weeks later, in a July 5 blog post on the district’s website, Sweetwater announced it had begun selling some of its old iPads. When inewsource reached out to the district for details about the sales, district spokesman Manuel Rubio said he didn’t know when the sales started, just sometime this year. Rubio said some of the tablets classified in the district’s data as damaged may have actually been sold.
Five days after the blog post, on July 10, the Sweetwater school board ratified the sale of aging iPads — after thousands had already been sold. Rubio never mentioned to inewsource this was on the board’s agenda.
4. Who bought them and what did the district get for them?
The outdated iPads are being sold to Gazelle, a San Diego company that buys used electronics in bulk. It’s owned by ecoATM, which has Coinstar-like machines that let people sell their old iPhones or iPads on the street.
So far, Gazelle has paid Sweetwater about $407,400 for some 5,600 devices — about $73 each. Those iPads were bought between 2012 and 2015. The company estimates it will pay $400,000 for another 4,700 iPads — about $85 each, which is more than the first batch because the remaining devices are newer. The money the district gets from the sales is being used to acquire new iPads for students.
5. Do iPads really last five years?
That was a big question asked by some community members in 2012 when Sweetwater initially used bond interest and Mello-Roos money to buy the devices, especially because that was a requirement to use those funding sources.
The district now uses general funds for iPads and it leases them rather than buys them. Rubio said the leases estimate a useful life for the devices of two to three years.
inewsource has requested additional information from Sweetwater about when the district decided to sell its used iPads to Gazelle and when the sales began. Was it before or after inewsource requested data on the devices in January? A price quote from Gazelle included in the July 10 school board agenda is dated April 6 — two months before the district told the public about selling the devices.
We’re also reaching out to other school districts in the county that have iPad initiatives to see how they’ve funded their programs and what they’ve done with outdated devices.
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