Schools' Computer Project Criticized
Study Urges Shift To D.C.'s Systems
By Justin Blum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 6, 2004; Page C01
D.C. public schools should abandon a failed five-year-old project to install new computer systems, which already has cost $25 million, and instead use systems being developed by the city, according to a report commissioned by school officials.
The report, by the city's Office of the Chief Technology Officer, said the schools would need to spend an additional $22.7 million to use the city's new computer systems. The study, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, was completed in early April, but school officials refused for weeks to release it.
Robert C. Rice, who has been interim school superintendent since April, said he is reviewing the school system's options and has not decided how to proceed. "I have no idea where we will find $22 million," Rice said.
The software that school officials purchased, from the company PeopleSoft Inc., was touted frequently by school leaders as the solution to long-standing problems in procurement, payroll, human resources and other business functions. But the new computer systems still are not operational.
School officials repeatedly missed their own deadlines for getting the systems online. A top official with PeopleSoft and several former school officials have said that high turnover in school management hampered the project.
The school system also made the project more complicated and expensive by trying to heavily customize the software instead of changing its own operations to adapt to the software, according to project records and interviews with consultants who were not involved in the work. The city report said the school system requested more than 200 modifications to the software. The report said the schools should ask for no more than 20 modifications if it uses the city's computer systems.
School officials halted work on the project in December and commissioned the city review soon afterward.
The 379-page review cost the school system about $240,000, which covered the time of employees in the city's technology office, as well as pay and travel expenses for consultants who worked on the report. The study includes extensive technical detail about how the schools' computer systems would be shifted to the city.
The report said the school system should "halt any further activity" on its computer project. It also called on the school system to cancel its maintenance contracts with PeopleSoft.
The city's chief technology officer, Suzanne J. Peck, said the cheapest option for schools would be to join with computer systems that the city is phasing in through 2006. She said school officials will have to start from scratch if they try to make their own computer systems work.
"Time has moved on, data has moved on and unfortunately, much of the work that they have done to get the system up will need to be repeated," Peck said.
Several consultants who have not worked on the school system computer project said it appears that the bulk of the $25 million spent has been wasted and that the only worthwhile investment is a few million dollars spent on computer hardware and data cleanup. School administrators said they could not estimate how much of the work is salvageable until they have decided how to proceed.
The city is planning to use PeopleSoft software for human resources and payroll and use other software for procurement, budget and planning. But much of the work that the schools did to install PeopleSoft is not transferable to the city's systems, Peck said.
PeopleSoft received a small portion of the $25 million the school system spent on the computer project. About $15.2 million was paid to another firm hired to help get the software running.
D.C. Council members and parent activists expressed frustration that the school system had wasted money and that it now would have to spend additional funds on similar work. They said the problems with the PeopleSoft project are especially troubling at a time when the Board of Education has decided to eliminate 557 school-based jobs, including many teaching positions, for lack of funds.
"It's a colossal waste of money," said Darlene Allen, head of the city's Congress of PTAs. "Twenty-two million after all the money we spent? . . . Oh, my God. It's just outrageous. When you look at it in terms of the cuts and the abolishments, it's just a shame. It is a crying shame."
Allen also questioned the need to spend money on a report to determine how to proceed. She said the school system should have found businesses willing to complete such a report for free.
In recent years, much of the money for the computer project has come out of funds that otherwise would have been used to modernize schools.
Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4) said that the school system should dismiss the employees responsible for the failure to install PeopleSoft. "If this was the private sector and you waste $22 million, someone would be shown the door," Fenty said. "There certainly is no spare money when we're cutting teachers."
Various school employees who worked on the project, and the middle managers and superintendents who oversaw them, have come and gone since the PeopleSoft effort began in 1999. The most recent official to quit is Clifford E. Cox, who had been overseeing the PeopleSoft work since December. He previously worked as a consultant on the project.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company