School district software contract draws questions

Doubts raised about price tag of project

By Jane Reuter
Posted

The Douglas County School Board recently approved spending $2.2 million to replace its human resources, payroll and benefits system, plus $639,000 for a five-year subscription for support services to the winning vendor, California-based Workday.

School board President Kevin Larsen said the district’s software is at a critical point. Doing nothing was not an option.

“No matter what, our system needed to be upgraded at significant cost, or we needed a new system altogether,” he said. “What we’re doing is a savings over an upgrade.

“It’s not just for accounting or HR; it’s to build a platform for all our systems to work together. It will also make it more feasible for us to get the data that’s often asked of us.”

But not everyone was sold on the decision, which was made during an April school board meeting.

“I think they’re going to end up asking for more money later,” said parent Jenny Robertson, an IT project manager for a financial services company who has used Oracle and other databases throughout her career.

Oracle is one of the two IT companies recently considered for the eight-year DCSD contract. Robertson, who expressed concerns during the April 15 meeting, said she has never worked for Oracle.

“In all honesty, I think the $2.2 million is going to be a lot higher,” she said. “I think the $600,000 is also going to be a lot higher.”

Parent Anne-Marie LeMieux also spoke at the meeting, referring to problems with a system upgrade at the Tucson (Ariz.) Unified School District from 2009-13.

That school district’s top administrators — who now hold the same positions in Douglas County — recommended a switch to a new HR, payroll and benefits software program that proved expensive and unworkable.

“Our children cannot afford such losses,” LeMieux said. “Please do not move forward without being certain you have all the facts in safeguarding against this failure.”

TUSD purchased the human resources, payroll and benefits software in 2009. The following year, Superintendent Elizabeth Fagen and Chief Financial Officer Bonnie Betz left TUSD for equivalent positions in Douglas County.

Meanwhile, TUSD spent $10 million and four years trying to make the software work before dumping it in 2013.

When TUSD’s Lawson software was purchased in 2009, it was under the recommendation of a team led by Fagen and Betz.

In a December 2010 article in the Arizona Daily Star, TUSD board president Judy Burns said they had been “duped.”

“We were promised certain things by people who are now gone — how convenient for them,” said Burns, who has since died.

Neither Fagen nor Betz responded to requests for comment, but Larsen said Tucson’s problems occurred after DCSD’s staff left there.

“They may have initially proposed and procured a system, but the implementation happened after they came to Douglas County,” he said. “However well or not they implemented the plan, Dr. Fagen and Bonnie did not oversee what went on in Tucson after they left.”

Betz described the DCSD system she first encountered in 2011 as “obsolete” with “highly manual, paper-based processes,” findings confirmed by an Oracle IT assessment.

The web of systems now in place is “expensive to maintain, difficult to manage” and “a real pain when we have upgrades in each other’s systems,” DCSD’s Chief Information Officer Gautam Sethi told the board in April.

“We’re going to take all the extra things away, and add the new things we need. It’ll all be in one comprehensive package — easy to run, easy to maintain, easy to use.”

The Workday company system approved also will have an estimated $7 million to $13 million return on investment, Betz said.

DCSD officials also said they negotiated the district’s costs for the new software sharply downward, including twice-annual upgrades for no added cost.

But Robertson said she could see “at a glance” that DCSD has underestimated its project costs.

“I’m an IT project manager with over 20 years of experience, and I’m accustomed to having a clear business case prior to a major IT investment, which includes all major costs and benefits,” she said.

“My concern is that the (board of education) made a significant financial decision without the necessary input. This could lead to less money that is passed from the district to the DCSD schools in the future.”

Board member Craig Richardson thanked the speakers at the meeting before voting to approve the expenditure.

“We think this is an important undertaking and we’ll be held accountable,” he said. “The implementation and execution of this program, the board having approved an expenditure of this magnitude, is our responsibility.”