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September 18, 2014

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School District bears financial weight of partially shelved software upgrade

Terri Janison

Terri Janison

In 2008, the budget crisis forced the Clark County School District to abandon plans to finish installation of a complex computer system that had consumed four years and $35 million. The upgrades for two important departments — human resources and payroll — would be delayed until funding became available.

At the same time, district staff promised the School Board that more than 18 project consultants, costing more than $500,000 a month, were being phased out, to be replaced by in-house experts.

Today, with the School District scrimping and pinching more than ever, there’s one expense that remains an albatross — the $1.1 million going this year to the remaining eight consultants responsible for the portions of the project that are up and running. The human resources and payroll departments remain on the older — and incompatible — computer system.

The cost of those consultants may seem small change compared with the district’s $2.1 billion operating budget, but all expenditures face intense scrutiny amid the struggle to close the remaining $28 million gap in balancing its books for fiscal year 2011.

Ending reliance on the consultants and putting the new system to full use remains the long-term goal, School Board President Terri Janison said.

“But with the economy the way it is and what we’re expecting in terms of cuts in state funding ... let’s just say I don’t have high hopes that it’s going to happen quickly,” Janison said.

The project springs from audits of the School District’s business operations that criticized its reliance on multiple — and often incompatible — computer systems. The new software was supposed to allow five key departments to easily share information — such as purchasing, information systems and business operations online. But coordinating the effort among the departments turned out more difficult and expensive than anticipated.

The project was launched in 2004 and was supposed to have been completed by January 2007 at an estimated cost of $33 million for the requisite software and hardware. But in March 2008 — after $35 million had been spent — the unfinished system was put on hold to save money. At the time, the district estimated it would take another $12 million to finish the project, putting it nearly 50 percent over budget.

Jim McIntosh, the district’s deputy chief financial officer, said he would like to hire three full-time employees to take over the consultants’ duties, but there are obstacles. He can’t advertise the jobs until after the summer, when the district has a better idea of how much money is actually available for new hires. And it’s not certain the district will be able to compete with the salaries such highly skilled software workers can earn in the private sector, where they are in huge demand.

“It will be interesting to see what kind of response we get (to the job advertisements) and what we would really have to pay,” McIntosh said.

It might well be that consultants offer the best dollar value for the district, McIntosh said.

Also complicating matters: The longer the district delays full transition to the new software, the more complicated (and potentially expensive) it will be to bring payroll and human resources into the loop.

“We hope to have someone come out and tell us whether those programs are still relevant, and what it would take in terms of consultants and dollars to take it live,” McIntosh said. “Obviously we’re facing all sorts of economic challenges, so we can’t put a hard timeline on those goals.”

On the upside, the portions of the system that are operational are doing what was promised, McIntosh said. Schools can now order supplies online via a specialized website, which means faster delivery and less paperwork. Principals can also get timelier spending reports to better track their budgets, rather than waiting until the end of the month for a breakdown of all purchases.

As the principal of Adams Elementary, one of the district’s “empowerment schools,” Rebecca Johnson has control over close to 100 percent of her campus’s operating budget. (In exchange for more autonomy, her campus must meet stricter accountability and performance measures than traditional schools.)

Johnson said the new software system is certainly an improvement over the previous purchasing process, and it’s gotten better over the three years since it was rolled out.

“In the past it might take a month for purchases to show up on the budget,” Johnson said. “Now it shows up within a day.”

But purchasing accounts for a tiny percentage of the school’s expenditures, so “when we’re talking about the amount of money that I’m able to watch in real time (with the new software system), it’s only 1.5 percent of my budget for the year,” Johnson said.

Staffing accounts for 97 percent, which includes paying for extra instructional time, student enrichment programs and professional development, the hallmarks of the empowerment model. But because the human resources and payroll systems are in hibernation, there are still delays in tracking those expenditures, Johnson said.

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