Computer System That Failed in Pr. George's Has Faltered at Schools Across U.S.

By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 6, 2009

The new multimillion-dollar computer system that left thousands of Prince George's County students without class schedules last week has faltered in districts across the nation, forcing some to pay more than they had expected and others to scrap it altogether.

Although some school systems have reported few problems with SchoolMax Enterprise, officials in Albuquerque faced millions of dollars in overruns with an older version. Los Angeles suffered through years of delays. And Bartow County, Ga., schools struggled to print transcripts and calculate accurate grade-point averages. Class schedules sometimes disappeared. The county eventually gave up on SchoolMax and went back to its old system.

"Oh, man, that product stinks," said Kathy Mull, who rolled out SchoolMax as Bartow's student information system coordinator. "I could see pretty quick that it was not what it was supposed to have been. It was not functioning properly, and they had no way of correcting the things. And apparently, judging by Prince George's, they still haven't fixed it a year later."

Although Prince George's officials say all 41,000 high school students now have schedules, school board members have called for an investigation of the debacle, and Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. has said he will look into whether damages can be recovered from Harris Computer Systems, which manages SchoolMax.

Prince George's officials were slow to recognize the seriousness of the situation, and Hite has said its full magnitude did not become clear to him until the first day of school. Since then, Prince George's officials have acknowledged that they did not have enough people trained to work with the system. And they have been criticized for not having a backup plan for handling schedules when it became clear that SchoolMax was not working properly.

Jerry Canada, general manager for the school division of Harris, has said the company's other SchoolMax clients had smoother experiences but declined to comment for this article.

SchoolMax Enterprise, developed by Maximus, of Reston, and sold last year to Harris, of Ottawa, is designed to be a modern solution to greater demands for student data. It handles attendance, grades, schedules, discipline and health records and even allows parents to log in and monitor their children's work. Anyone with an Internet connection can access it, and it fits school systems ranging from Bartow, with 14,000 students, to Los Angeles, with nearly 700,000. Prince George's has about 130,000 students. At least 76 school systems use SchoolMax; most have a more reliable, less sophisticated older version. Los Angeles and Prince George's use the newer version.

Officials from Maximus could not be reached to comment.

Roy M. Lanier, chief technology officer for the Laredo Independent School District in Texas, said his school system had experienced some "growing pains" with adopting SchoolMax Enterprise this year, but he chalked up most of the problems to staff getting used to a new system.

"I would say 99.9 percent of the problems we've had would be the learning curve," Lanier said. "I really have not had any showstoppers."

But the system hasn't fulfilled its big promises everywhere. The Los Angeles Unified School District, the second-largest school system in the country, is three years behind schedule in its installation of SchoolMax. Problems have been reported from Richmond County, Ga., which had scheduling problems in 2004, to Albuquerque, which had cost overruns and problems in 2006.

Other school systems, including those in Fremont, Calif., and Middletown, R.I., say it is working fine. And most administrators agree that replacing their old technology is long overdue. Before switching to SchoolMax, Prince George's was running on a 25-year-old computer system and Los Angeles collected information through 26 data systems. The old systems cannot handle the demands of the federal No Child Left Behind law, which requires districts to accurately track student performance over their careers.

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