Criminal indictments. Cost overruns. Conflicts of interest.
All three have dogged the plan to bring Internet technology to every classroom in Arizona since the initiative was launched by the Arizona School Facilities Board three years ago.
But in spite of scandal and its ballooned price tag, technology administrators from East Valley school districts say the infrastructure built by Qwest that hard-wired every school for computer technology is working well.
The separate contract to deliver educational software to schools through the Internet generally got mostly bad reviews from school administrators contacted by the Tribune.
The facilities board spent about $213 million to build the computer technology vision devised by Philip Geiger, who was executive director of the state agency until he was forced to resign by then-Gov. Jane Hull in March 2002. Geiger quit the same day the Tribune disclosed he had steered a $27.9 million board contract to a software company to which he had personal and financial ties.
In the months that followed, the $100 million price tag for a separate deal Geiger cut with Qwest to design and build the technology infrastructure went up by $40 million.
Then, in February 2003, four former Qwest executives were indicted on charges that they’d conspired with Geiger to falsely report equipment sales from the facilities board purchase order in the company’s June 2001 quarterly financial report. The trial in that case began Feb. 16 in Denver.
Geiger reached an immunity deal with federal prosecutors and will be a key government witness, according to court records. He is expected to testify as early as this week. He did not respond to a request for an interview.
"We got taken to the cleaners," said state Treasurer David Petersen, who as a Republican state senator from Mesa helped lead the drive to expose Geiger’s inside deals two years ago. "It was structured to be wasteful."
The facilities board was created by the Legislature to fix the capital disparities between rich and poor school districts in the state. The board took over the job of building, equipping and repairing schools from local districts. Geiger was hired to run the agency in 1999.
The technology initiative he devised had three components:
• Qwest was awarded the purchase order to design and build the system to connect every classroom to the Internet. Because the board was exempt from state procurement laws, Geiger signed the deal without having to seek competitive bids. The purchase order allowed Qwest to assess the needs of schools, design the system, provide the equipment and oversee the installation.
• A separate $27.9 million contract was awarded to a consortium of businesses to provide software that could be downloaded to schools through the Internet. As originally proposed by Geiger, districts would be able to access most software for free and purchase specialized programs at additional cost.
• The board also would buy $50 million worth of computers that met specifications dictated by Geiger. The actual cost was about $44.6 million.
Costs and legal turmoil aside, technology administrators in school districts in Mesa, Scottsdale, Chandler, Tempe and Gilbert said the equipment that was installed by Qwest is working well.
"It’s at least as good as sliced bread," said Mike Ruppel, chief technology officer for the Tempe Union High School District.
But the universal praise does not extend to the software component of the technology initiative. While some districts are using the software delivered through the facilities board contract, most administrators surveyed by the Tribune said it is not very useful.
Janine Gearhart, director of educational technology at the Mesa Unified School District, said the software available under the facilities board contract does not get used much there. The way the deal is structured, schools can typically get a few free lessons from a particular program under the facilities board contract, she said. But to continue through the entire program, schools have to pay, she said.
"It’s not really a full-blown curriculum," Gearhart said. "It’s demos."
Beyond that, the most popular and effective teaching programs are not available under the facilities board contract, Gearhart said.
Ruppel of the Tempe high school district agreed.
"Virtually everything that was on it was stuff we’d already looked at and decided we didn’t want," he said.
Jack Sarrett, director of information systems for the Tempe Elementary School District, said the software provided through the facilities board is used to augment other software programs used in the district.
"It’s certainly not enough to be a core for any subject," he said.
Keith Vaughan, director of planning and development for the Gilbert Unified School District and a current member of the state facilities board, said the software component of the technology plan has fallen short.
"I guess I’m disappointed in that," Vaughan said. "It was somewhat difficult to use. Also, it didn’t go to a great deal of depth before the point that you needed to purchase the software."
Ann Boyle, assistant superintendent and interim director of technology in the Scottsdale Unified School District, was the only administrator contacted by the Tribune who is satisfied with the software package provided by the facilities board. Using the system effectively does require more staff time and training, she said
"The selection of content that is available is excellent," Boyle said. "Is it going to be the only thing we use for computer instruction? Of course not. But it was never meant to be. It was meant to be supplemental materials that kids could access and that parents could see from their home."