Manatee school board hopes to finish software project with two more contracts

The School Support Center, at 215 Manatee Ave. W.
The School Support Center, at 215 Manatee Ave. W.

The School Board of Manatee County has approved spending $260,000 to correct problems with a business management system.

Ciber, the company hired to implement Manatee’s new enterprise resource planning (ERP) software, agreed to start fixing dozens of problems at the start of September. On Tuesday evening, the school board unanimously approved a $195,000 change order to pay for the corrections: $150,000 for the work and $45,000 for travel expenses.

The board also approved a $65,000 contract with George Kosmac, the retired Seminole County Public Schools administrator who was hired to oversee the project’s completion. He will earn $900 per day, along with a $250 flat rate for expenses.

Board members were likely to approve the contracts on Oct. 9, but a power outage forced the meeting’s cancellation.

Tuesday’s change order involves a fixed price. Ciber employees are expected to resolve the problems by mid-November, but the price won’t change if Ciber needs more time and the district fulfills its obligations.

“Unlike a taxi, the meter’s not running,” said Mitchell Teitelbaum, the district attorney.

The original software implementation was expected to cost less than $10 million. The project, now a year behind schedule, is expected to cost well over $20 million.

Board Chair Scott Hopes said the district is scrutinizing past invoices, and Superintendent Cynthia Saunders said she is withholding payment for $2.3 million in unpaid invoices from Ciber.

The change order, Hopes said, was reviewed by attorneys at Carlton Fields Jorden Burt, the firm hired in early September to provide legal advice on the district’s contracts and discussions with Ciber.

The firm is working at a discounted price of $460 per hour for lead shareholders, $430 per hour for other shareholders, $330 per hour for associates and $155 per hour for paralegals.

Board member Dave Miner was skeptical of the change order. He questioned whether the completion date was too open-ended, and whether it released Ciber and its parent company, HTC Global, from any future claims by the district.

He later approved the contract after receiving assurances from his colleagues.

“I can see why the parent company would want to get in, because they’re responsible for the sins, and these are sins that occurred,” Miner said.

From the very beginning, internal auditors warned that lacking resources — especially a lack of money or staff — could derail the project. Before voting on the change order, Charlie Kennedy expressed his concerns about the future.

“I feel like we have at least two employees that we kind of set up for failure,” he said. “We’re still kind of working those issues out but even beyond that, I want to express my support for those two and this team.”

“I am still concerned that we have a team doing this work that is still understaffed and overworked,” he continued.

On Tuesday, board members approved the retirement of Ron Ciranna, deputy superintendent of business services and operations. They also approved the resignation of Robert Malloy, the district’s chief information technology officer.

The district was investigating both employees for their roles in the ERP project. District leaders believe money was spent without board approval, and that board members were possibly misled about the project’s status.

Echoing statement made by Kennedy, board Member John Colon thanked district staff who continue to juggle scarce resources and tight deadlines.

“It’s hard to get these people, especially when we’re a school district and we’re not willing to pay what’s necessary to get the caliber of people in a market like this, where they’re literally making their own salaries,” he said.

Manatee’s ERP software, PeopleSoft, replaced a system that was nearly 20 years old. It was meant to digitize and simplify every aspect of the district, from payroll to purchasing.

The project has proved to be a costly headache, but Colon said the headache was worth enduring

“We can’t go back to the stone age,” he said. “We can’t go back to paper.”

Ron Ciranna, deputy superintendent for operations for the School District of Manatee County, said an overhaul of the system's software system will require additional time and money.