Education

School district pumps money and time into troubled software project

The school board will consider raising its contract with Agitech Solutions from $395,000 per year to $850,000 per year during a meeting on Tuesday. Agitech is linked to the enterprise resource planning (ERP) project.
The school board will consider raising its contract with Agitech Solutions from $395,000 per year to $850,000 per year during a meeting on Tuesday. Agitech is linked to the enterprise resource planning (ERP) project. gsabella@bradenton.com

Late nights, hefty contracts and humming computers are a norm in the district’s School Support Center, where employees are working to fix a troubled software project.

The project started with an estimated cost of $9.8 million in 2016. A recent estimate places the cost at more than $27 million, and the true price tag is becoming more evident each week.

On Tuesday, the school board will consider two agreements related to the enterprise resource planning software, or ERP project. Board members also face the departure of a third administrator, who was suspended during a district’s investigation of the project.

Angie Oxley, the project manager, has agreed to an “early separation of employment,” according to the agenda.

The ERP software brings district operations — purchasing, human resources, payroll, benefits and other services — under one umbrella. One function allows the district to submit vital reports to the Florida Department of Education, a module that cost $326,000 to create.

Ron Ciranna, Manatee’s former deputy superintendent of operations; and Robert Malloy, the former head of information technology, authorized Ciber Global to create the module, according to Tuesday’s board agenda.

It said they violated district policy, which requires the school board to approve purchases of $50,000 or more. Ciranna and Malloy are leaving the district amid an internal investigation.

Ciber is responsible for implementing the ERP software, PeopleSoft, and it recently agreed to a 50 percent discount on the state reporting module. The contract for $163,000 is on Tuesday’s agenda.

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Meanwhile, a team is still dealing with approximately 11,000 errors found in Ciber’s state reporting module. Fixing the software is a top priority, because accurate reports are key to receiving tens of millions of dollars in state funding.

And while the first contract presents an opportunity to save money, the second item on Tuesday’s agenda could more than double spending.

In 2016, the board contracted with Agitech Solutions for a price not to exceed $200,000 per year. Agitech maintains the ERP software, installs needed upgrades and monitors performance.

The board increased its maximum spending from $200,000 to $395,000 last April, bringing system testing, development and customization into Agitech’s scope.

The two-year agreement came to an end, and the school board renewed its contract with Agitech on Aug. 28. On Tuesday, the board will decide whether to increase authorized spending from $395,000 per year to $850,000 per year.

If approved, the updated contract would add to Agitech’s list of responsibilities. The company would help with Manatee’s state reporting module, and it would replace the district’s current hiring system, Taleo, with PeopleSoft.

The company would also help to simplify the overall system.

“The system is far too complicated for the average person to sit down and use,” said George Kosmac, interim director of ERP business systems, at a recent meeting.

It seems the rising costs are a symptom of poor management, misconduct and bad luck over the last several years. A bankruptcy impacted Ciber in 2017, adding to rampant turnover among the project team.

The program grew far beyond its original scope, and the district failed to back its project with enough resources, according to past reports from the internal auditor.

But the tides may be turning, if Thursday’s meeting of the Audit Committee is any indication.

The IT department was in desperate need of support. Doug Wagner, deputy superintendent of business services and operations, said the office recently gained 10 employees.

Kosmac, the project’s interim director, said his team started with 48 significant defects in the ERP software, widdling the number to fewer than 10 by Thursday.

And after nonstop work the night before, he said, the district successfully launched enrollment for employee benefits.

“It’s really tough to find some quiet time, and we work late,” Kosmac said.

However, Manatee Technical College is still hindered by defects in the state reporting system.

The district incurred several fines for its inaccurate submissions to the Florida Retirement System, and it suffered through a tedious process of manually submitting its quarterly tax return.

Cynthia Saunders, the district’s interim superintendent, said the project was too ambitious.

The district tried to implement 28 features at one time, compared to the University of South Florida, which utilizes about 16 modules.

Now the district is racing to meet deadlines and put its ERP troubles in the past.

“It’s painful, but we’re going to make it,” Saunders said.

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