Published Thursday, March 6, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Updated Monday, March 10, 2008 | 3:30 p.m.
Beyond the Sun
Officials knew the Clark County School District’s new computer system was going to cost at least $33 million. They pressed forward, saying it would make employees more efficient, resolve auditors’ long-standing concerns and save so much money by consolidating services that it would pay for itself in three to five years.
Initially, the project was supposed to have been completed by January 2007.
But now, $35 million later, the still unfinished system is being put on hold — to save money.
It will remain on ice for at least a year, saving an estimated $6 million while the district waits for the 2009 Legislature. The hope is that lawmakers will appropriate at least $12 million more to finish the project.
As of Feb. 28, 15 of the 16 consultants hired for the project had been booted from the district’s payroll. Each had been paid from $100 to $300 an hour — for a total of about $642,000 a month.
That amount made Clark County School Board Vice President Terri Janison gasp when the monthly bill was brought up at a board meeting last week.
“It seems like we’re making a lot of consultants rich,” Janison said. “With numbers like that, it has to make more sense to hire employees.”
Keith Bradford, an assistant superintendent supervising the computer project, countered that the district didn’t have employees with the skills necessary for highly specialized work. And later, no new staff positions were added to shift the work away from the consultants, so the district is keeping one consultant onboard — at a rate of $28,000 a month — to continue to help with the portion of the system that is up and running. Bradford said he wants to shift that consultant’s workload to a new full-time employee, but that will depend on whether funding is approved for the new hire.
By the time the remainder of the project is revived, Bradford said, the district will have found cheaper consultants or transferred the duties to full-time employees.
“Just like a bear that goes into hibernation, when he comes out he’s lean and ready to go,” Bradford said. “We’re not going to make the same mistakes.”
The exact cost of “waking up” the program and finishing implementation is difficult to predict, said Jeff Weiler, the district’s chief financial officer. The longer the delay, the more likely the price will go up, he said. If the Enterprise Resource Planning project, or ERP, as school officials call it, had stayed on track, the final cost was expected to be $47 million.
“It would have been nice to see the project through this year,” Weiler said. But, he added, given that the district is struggling to comply with Gov. Jim Gibbons’ call for it to cut $66 million from its budget over the biennium, postponing the computer system “is the prudent thing to do.”
“What if the technology changes so much that the system is useless?” Janison wondered aloud in an interview with the Sun after the School Board meeting. “That’s my big fear here.”
So, is there a chance the district will find itself with the equivalent of a VCR in a world of Blu-ray disks?
“If you hibernate for three months, nothing will change,” said Andrew Beck, vice president of Metaformers Inc. of McLean, Va., which has helped dozens of school districts implement ERP systems. “If you hibernate for five years, there will be a shift in technology and that can present some problems.”
In a recent audit commissioned by the Legislature, the School District was criticized for having departments using multiple — and often incompatible — computer systems. That echoed the findings of past independent auditors hired by the district to review its operations and finances.
The new computer system was supposed to streamline operations and allow five key departments to easily share information online for the first time. But coordinating the departments turned out to be more difficult and more expensive than projected.
So far only two departments, finance and purchasing, have switched to the new system. For the time being, the payroll, human resources and teacher recruiting departments will continue to use older computer systems.
Clark County is not the only school district struggling with ERP projects. Los Angeles Unified, the nation’s second-largest school district, spent $95 million on the same SAP ERP software program used by Clark County. Los Angeles Unified’s payroll department had the system in place in June when more than 30,000 employees were paid the wrong amounts. As a result of the massive payroll system failure, the district has indefinitely delayed expanding the new system to other departments.
Editor’s Note: This story has been corrected. In an earlier version, the last paragraph referered to the ERP software used by Clark County as being from Sun Microsystems rather than from SAP.