New Manatee schools computer system: Millions over budget and late. What went wrong?

Under the leadership of former Superintendent Diana Greene and her chief officers, the School District of Manatee County failed to address numerous warning signs during the rollout of a massive software project. After delays in the design and implementation, Manatee’s new enterprise resource planning system, or ERP, finally launched on July 1, more than a year behind schedule and millions of dollars over budget.

District employees are still fine tuning the system and awaiting the results of a state audit, which includes the ERP project.

Manatee’s ERP system has cost taxpayers at least $24.1 million, more than double the original estimate of $9.8 million. When adding the district’s labor, travel and other expenses, the project total is closer to $27 million.

The project was largely funded by Manatee’s capital budget, the same money used for building maintenance and school construction.

The district’s blunders are detailed in school board videos and meeting minutes that date back more than four years, along with more than a dozen audit reports and at least 80 other documents linked to the ERP project, each reviewed by the Bradenton Herald.

Manatee hoped to replace a computer system that was nearly two decades old, improving its state audits and updating all its operations — human resources, payroll, benefits and purchasing, among others.

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Now, more than six months after it launched, the new system is still a source of headaches for Manatee’s school district.

Five software features, or “modules,” were still defective as of early December. The district may re-evaluate its needs, discarding certain features that were previously purchased and installed.

But even if the system were flawless, district staff would need a thorough understanding of how to use the software and how to follow Manatee’s business practices. The project revealed that some departments had outdated or nonexistent policies.

A lack of documented policies and procedures may be the result of rampant turnover in Manatee’s school district, which is now working to train its employees — many of them struggling to use the new system — and to form a record of everyday business practices.

Manatee’s ERP project, according to the Bradenton Herald’s review, suffered from a host of problems:

  • Understaffing. From start to finish, internal auditors warned the district of burnout among its small project team, a red flag that quickly became a reality.
  • Slow decision making. While department leaders were expected to finalize decisions within days, some decisions were pending for up to one year.
  • Lack of preparation. Manatee employees lacked proper training before the software launched, affecting everyone from school teachers to department leaders. Poor communication also hurt the employees’ willingness to accept change.
  • Aggressive deadlines. While an ERP implementation can last two years or more, Manatee originally tried to finish the project in less than 13 months. It’s possible the rapid deadlines also created the need for more staff, along with the burnout and extra costs.
  • Scope creep. Due to oversight problems and audit findings at Manatee Technical College, the school board voted to include MTC in the software project, an effort to improve the school’s operations. The costly decision was made in December 2016, about nine months after the project started.
  • Failed plans. The original chief information officer, Patrick Fletcher, planned to copy a system used in the School District of Lee County, which implemented the same ERP software in 2009. The plan failed, along with the potential savings.
  • Bad relations. Ciber was hired to work with Manatee’s ERP team and implement the system. Ciber filed for bankruptcy about one year after the project started, and the company had similar problems with burnout and staff turnover.
  • Possible deception. A former district administrator said that Fletcher, at Greene’s direction, lowered the original project cost in order to better their chances of school board approval. Manatee’s former superintendent has since denied the claim, and Fletcher could not be reached for comment.

To report this story, the Bradenton Herald reviewed more than four years of school board meeting minutes and videos, as well as more than a dozen audit reports and at least 80 other documents. Your digital subscription, starting at $0.99 for the first month, supports investigative journalism like this. Click here to subscribe.

Many of the same problems — understaffing, poor training and a lack of “normal business practices” — were noted on Feb. 21, 2014, two years before the ERP project officially started. Auditors from Shinn and Company reported on the downfall of past software projects, a recurring issue in the district.

The new enterprise resource planning system launched on July 1, 2018, followed by a realization that Manatee’s multimillion-dollar software was riddled with bugs, and that staff were unprepared to use the system.

Greene started her new job as the head of Duval County schools on the same day.

She was replaced by Cynthia Saunders, a longtime colleague and friend. District administrators have since commended the interim superintendent for addressing recent issues with the ERP system.

Saunders is currently facing a state investigation related to graduation rates, and she professed innocence at a Jan. 8 school board meeting, noting several priorities in her prepared statement.

“We need to continue our district-wide push to provide a fully functional ERP system,” she said.

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In response to questions from the Bradenton Herald, Greene sent a prepared statement through Tracy Pierce, a spokesman for Duval County Public Schools, on Jan. 8.

In her response, Greene said she relied on district staff to provide expertise and guide the project. She also noted the constant supervision by Manatee’s independent Audit Committee, and its internal auditor, Carr, Riggs and Ingram (formerly Shinn and Company).

“I understand as superintendent that I am ultimately held accountable for results, regardless of my role in the series of events,” Greene wrote. “This was a dark chapter in an otherwise very successful tenure in Manatee County.”

“As the process continues to be scrutinized, I hope people will be able to separate fact from fiction and focus on getting the system working properly,” she said.

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Did staff deceive school board?

While the project ballooned in size and cost, it’s possible the original estimate of $9.8 million was unrealistic for such a complex project.

In fact, according to one former employee, the estimate was altered before it reached the school board.

“It was all about what they believed the board would be willing to accept as a number,” said Robert Johnson, the former director of planning and performance management for Manatee schools.

He said Greene directed the chief information officer, Fletcher, to reduce the original project cost. His apparent solution was to strip the plan of vital features, or “modules,” knowing they would eventually have to be purchased via change orders.

“Patrick went through it and just started, on a whiteboard, marking stuff off,” Johnson said, adding that Greene was likely aware of Fletcher’s plan.

“No decision of that magnitude gets made in isolation,” Johnson said.

District records show a concerted effort to lower the original cost estimate, but they don’t explain how or why the price was reduced.

Greene, Johnson and Fletcher attended a meeting of the ERP project team on Jan. 13, 2016, as did Saunders, then the deputy superintendent of instruction; Don Hall, a former deputy superintendent; and Lourdes Alcox, a project manager, according to meeting minutes.

“Present PeopleSoft to the board at the last board meeting in February and at a workshop if price is reduced to $8 to $9 million,” the minutes state.

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The implementation officially began with contract approvals on March 8, 2016, and costly problems surfaced about eight months later, as outlined in a report by the district’s internal auditor.

Shinn and Company’s report on Oct. 25, 2016, said Manatee would have to purchase needed modules.

“The initial scope of the project did not include some vital needs and requirements of the District at the time of the original statement of work,” it said.

In this file photo, then-Superintendent Diana Greene listens as Ron Ciranna, then a deputy superintendent, speaks during a board meeting. Greene recently said she relied on the expertise of her staff to complete the ERP project. Tiffany Tompkins

Greene denied that she pressured her staff to lower the project’s cost.

“I did not require the team to reduce the number of modules to reduce the cost,” she wrote. “These are just examples of notes or quotes acquired by the Bradenton Herald that simply aren’t true.”

Since the ERP system was launched, school district officials have pointed the finger at three ex-employees: Ron Ciranna, the former deputy superintendent of operations; Rob Malloy, the former chief information officer; and Angie Oxley, the former project manager.

In a prepared statement on Aug. 6, district attorney Mitchell Teitelbaum announced the decision to place Ciranna on administrative leave.

“While the investigation is ongoing, the school district cannot provide further comment,” his statement read.

The district attorney made a similar statement about one month later, when Manatee placed Malloy and Oxley on leave. Malloy later resigned, Ciranna retired and Oxley accepted an early separation of employment, effective Jan. 18.

The details of their alleged actions are still unknown. During his time as chairman of the school board, Scott Hopes said the accusations stemmed from unauthorized spending and misleading statements.

An internal investigation has yet to be completed, and all of the former employees declined to comment. Teitelbaum, the district attorney, said an internal investigation is pending the completion of a separate report by the Florida Auditor General.

Johnson, the former director of planning, is skeptical of allegations against the former staffers.

“I can’t speak either way about Ron or Angie, but I know Rob (Malloy),” he said. “Him I can speak on, and I know for a fact Rob wouldn’t misappropriate any funds or spend any money outside of governance practices — without question.”

In a prepared statement sent by a spokesman on Jan. 8, the school district again pointed to former staff.

“Most of the employees that were the project owners and subject matter experts during the development and implementation of the ERP system are no longer employed by the School District,” it read.

The software

The need for an updated system was apparent in 2013, but Manatee’s ERP project officially started under Greene, the superintendent from May 2015 to June 2018.

The district formed a committee to review products and recommend the preferred software. A steering committee provided direction and approved decisions, and a third team carried out the implementation.

On Aug. 26, 2015, the district called on four companies to demonstrate their software to the Product Review Committee, and two products — EnterpriseOne and Skyward — were presented by the deadline.

The original review committee was comprised of 51 people, including Greene and Saunders. The group included a host of chief officers and department heads, along with school-based employees, such as principals and bookkeepers.

Saunders was also a brief member of the original steering committee.

The district compared both products and chose to move forward with Skyward. According to Johnson, the former director of planning, both Greene and Saunders preferred Skyward, a system used in their previous district, Marion County Public Schools.

Further research uncovered problems between Skyward’s features and Manatee’s needs, and Greene later directed her staff to consider an alternative.

Her staff chose to review PeopleSoft, a product that was unable to meet the original deadline.

The steering committee met on Dec 10, 2015, and Greene compared the two products. She said PeopleSoft was “much more complex” and business oriented, while Skyward was “much more K-12 oriented,” according to the meeting minutes.

“Whichever one is chosen, the district’s commitment is to make it the best it can be,” the minutes state, quoting Greene. “Stay positive about whichever product is selected.”

The district knew by early January 2016 that it would move toward PeopleSoft, which outperformed Skyward in every review of Manatee’s needs.

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Three other Florida school districts implemented PeopleSoft: Seminole County (1999), Palm Beach (2006) and Lee County (2009). Skyward was in 15 school districts, though the software was not in Florida’s largest districts, according to a Feb. 5, 2016, audit report.

Between the software, implementation, maintenance and file hosting, the five-year cost was estimated to be anywhere from $11 million to $13 million — before Manatee Technical College was considered months later.

Money became a focal point of the ERP team meeting attended by Greene, Saunders and four others on Jan. 13, 2016.

“Reduce total overall cost of PeopleSoft: Possible $8 to $9 million,” the minutes state. The quote was not accompanied by a name, and was instead listed under a section titled, “Decisions Made.”

Minutes for the next meeting on Feb. 11, 2016, noted that software costs “will not be presented as separate from the total implementation cost,” something that was apparently considered.

The meeting was attended by Fletcher, Malloy and Alcox, along with Sandy Ford, chief of support services; and two business analysts, Amanda Brameister and Matt Delvecchio.

The same people attended a team meeting one week later, when they again discussed the need to stay below $10 million.

Meeting minutes said Fletcher, then the chief information officer; and Hall, then a deputy superintendent, would “solicit Greene’s feedback about the appropriate level of detail to share” in the upcoming school board meeting.

And according to minutes from Feb. 23, 2016, the district needed hardware to accompany the new ERP software. Such expenses were not included in the project’s overall cost.

“Patrick (Fletcher) has money in capital budget from this year,” the minutes state.

“Not asking the board for any new capital, so it shouldn’t be on the total,” it continues.

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With a lowered estimate of $9.8 million, the supposed cost of implementing and maintaining PeopleSoft for five years, the district could move forward with buying its ERP system and hiring a vendor to implement the software.

Less than two weeks before the school board considered both contracts, the project team met to discuss its plan for an upcoming meeting.

The discussion involved two chiefs, Fletcher and Ford; and two analysts, Malloy and Brameister.

“Dr. Greene does not want to provide another project update to the board,” the minutes state.

The contract

While a project update was attached to the board agenda, it was not presented during the March 8, 2016, meeting. Board members took it upon themselves to find out more.

“Could we have staff provide some further elaboration on this?” board member Dave Miner said. “We’re talking about a lot of money.”

Miner asked whether the contracts were reviewed by the school board’s attorney, the district’s Audit Committee or the district’s internal auditor, and the answer was “no” on all accounts.

Dave Miner, now the school board chair, listens during a past school board meeting. He asked for more due diligence before contract approvals in the ERP project, but his concerns fell on deaf ears in 2016. Bradenton Herald file

The district’s attorney, Teitelbaum, did review the contracts.

“They’ve been stamped and they bear my signature,” he said at the meeting. “I did review them in great detail.”

Unsatisfied, Miner suggested the board postpone its decision until the Audit Committee had a chance to review two agreements related to the ERP project. His motion died for lack of a second.

He made a second motion to approve the contracts, subject to positive review by the Audit Committee and the internal auditor. That motion died, too.

“It’s the board that’s responsible,” Miner said. “It’s the board that, a year from now, people could point to and say, ‘Listen, you guys really didn’t do steps that you should do before saying we’re going to be writing these checks.’ ”

Then-board member John Colon questioned the use of a time-and-materials contract, which encompasses hourly pay, travel expenses and materials used in the project. Any delays would lead to further costs.

school budget_002
John Colon, a former member of the Manatee County School Board, raised concerns about the use of a time-and-materials contract in the ERP project. Without support from other board members, he went on to vote for the contracts on March 8, 2016. Bradenton Herald file

While more expensive at the start, a fixed-price agreement would place more risk on the company hired to implement Manatee’s software.

“Although you’re correct, Mr. Colon, we have put in all the variables and using another school district’s model to try to prevent any of that happening,” Greene said.

“I will also state that this is an excellent contract, and we do have all our ducks in order,” she later said.

The board also received assurances from the district’s internal auditors. Byron Shinn said the hourly rates and the estimated project costs were “reasonable and consistent.”

An audit report, published about one month later, outlined the cost of bringing PeopleSoft to other counties.

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Seminole paid $5 million to implement PeopleSoft in the late ‘90s, whereas Palm Beach paid approximately $24.7 million in 2006. At a cost of about $32.4 million, Lee paid the most for its implementation in 2009.

Though his firm was not hired to review the contract, it did review the process used to identify PeopleSoft, the ERP program; and Ciber, the company responsible for implementing the software.

“We believe that Patrick Fletcher and his team have done a robust job trying to identify the issues in a fairly short timeframe,” Shinn said. “Again, your scope is very broad, and the timeframe is rather aggressive, but capable of doing it.”

The district planned to launch its new software on April 1, 2017, less than 13 months after the board meeting. Most implementation projects take between 18 to 24 months, according to a risk summary prepared by district staff.

Oxley, then an auditor with Shinn and Company, commended the district for choosing both companies. She also pointed to the risks outlined in Ciber’s contract.

“You will be expected, probably along with Dr. Greene, to offer an enormous amount of resources from the district,” she said.

Ciber’s contract — referred to as “the implementation Bible” in one audit report — foreshadowed risks to the overall project. It said the project could grow in size, communication could falter and district resources could be unavailable.

Despite the concerns of some members, the school board unanimously approved both contracts at the meeting on March 8, 2016: about $2.1 million for PeopleSoft and approximately $7 million for Ciber’s implementation.

Miner and Colon sat on the board, as did Charlie Kennedy, Robert Gause and Karen Carpenter, the board chair. Several board members wanted more input from the Audit Committee before making future decisions.

“I will hold the superintendent to this not happening again without going through the Audit Committee,” Colon said.

The ERP project team met two days after the contract approvals, and it seems the superintendent had other plans.

Though Greene was not present, the ERP team meeting was attended by Fletcher, then the chief information officer; Hall, then a deputy superintendent; and Ford, the chief support services officer.

Three analysts — Malloy, Brameister and Delvecchio — also attended.

“Dr. Greene does not want any more contracts held up because they have not gone to Audit Committee,” the minutes state. “Nothing should be made public before it is seen by the Board.”

Greene responded to the minutes in her prepared statement on Jan. 8.

“My Chief Financial Officer and I insisted the project be monitored by the internal auditor and supported as well by the board’s external audit committee,” she wrote. “Therefore, this statement couldn’t be true because I was the one who insisted that everything be reviewed by the Audit Committee.”

The burnout

Problems began to surface at the school board meeting on June 28, 2016, less than four months after the contract approvals.

In May 2016, dozens of employees worked more than 40 hours per week on the ERP project, accumulating 1,887 hours of work in one month, according to June 2016 audit report.

The majority of employees were not directly responsible for implementing the system. Along with documenting their everyday business practices, they usually met with ERP team members and explained the needs of their own departments, shaping the software’s development.

At the project’s peak, there were fewer than a dozen Manatee employees who gathered input from the experts and then implemented the system.

“This workload is in addition to their normal operational assignments,” the audit report states. “The district should consider identifying short term, outsourcing options for some of the operational staff work in order to prevent overload and burn out amongst current staff.”

School board member Gause questioned whether the project would require extra money or time. In response, the superintendent said she and her chief officers disagreed with the Shinn and Company report.

Greene named Fletcher, then the chief information officer; Rebecca Roberts, then the chief financial officer; and Sarah Brown, the executive director of human resources.

“In speaking to them, they are not prepared to say, ‘Yes, we feel like we need help.’ They believe that, based on what they’ve learned and what they’re doing, that we need to give this some more time to see ... where would we use additional resources,” Greene said.

In her recent statement, Greene said the board meeting was misinterpreted.

“I did not disagree with the recommendation to add staff,” she wrote.

But her comment at the June 28, 2016, school board meeting seems to contradict that statement.

“I know they have indicated that they feel this is a risk,” she said in 2016, addressing the report by Oxley, an internal auditor. “There are other pieces to this that we feel we may think differently.”

“Right now we’re working on, well, if we did have additional (resources), what would we have those individuals doing?” Greene continued.

The superintendent said her staff would not be easily duplicated by outside help, and she saw no immediate purpose for the extra resources.

ERP team structure
The reorganized ERP team that existed by 2017, outlined in a presentation to the school board. About half a dozen business analysts worked on an average of five modules each.

Fletcher, the chief information officer, supported Greene’s stance at the meeting. He said it would be hard to find qualified people who understand the district’s operations, and that new people would have to be trained, burdening the current staff.

It seems the team at Ciber was feeling equal pressure. Two to three employees traveled back to India for “Visa status issues,” according to the June 6, 2016, minutes from an ERP team meeting.

In a team meeting about two months later, a Ciber employee said his company was experiencing turnover, and that district staff were not fully dedicated to the project.

“We have gotten feedback that some Ciber resources are getting burned out on the amount of travel,” the minutes state.

Nearly every audit report from February 2016 to September 2017 listed the staff shortage as a major risk. Along with needing more employees, the district’s existing staff were often unavailable outside of their everyday jobs.

Ciber expected district staff to commit more than 27,600 hours to the project between March and September of 2016. The actual total was 6,835 between those months, according to an Oct. 25, 2016, audit report.

“While the district has increased its resources dedicated to the project full time, the amount of resources is still woefully under critical need,” a May 2017 report said, adding that critical tasks were “getting missed or need reworked.”

“The District seems to be losing people in various positions in the project faster than they can replace them,” a report said one month later. “This is a result of already understaffed operational areas.”

By the school board’s meeting on Sept. 26, 2017, the project deadline changed twice, the budget more than doubled and the same issues remained.

The board heard from Malloy, who replaced Fletcher as the chief information officer; and Brameister, who was now the director of business systems.

They outlined four main problems: the district’s slow decision making and lack of resources, along with delays by outside companies and the slow process of moving data from the old system to the new.

Hopes, a new member on the board, urged the duo to ask for help.

“I want to reiterate again, you’re going to hear it every time you give a report, this is not a time to be conservative in expressing your need for resources,” Hopes said.

Malloy said he needed one person for each of the program’s 28 features, or “modules.” There were about half a dozen people working on the software, and each was handling an average of five modules.

His comment prompted immediate laughter from the school board.

“Denied,” board member Charlie Kennedy said.

“I didn’t empower that,” Greene added.

“You’re not that empowered,” Colon followed.

Angie Oxley
Angie Oxley, a former audit principal for Shinn and Company. She later joined the school district as its ERP project manager, and then its director of business systems. She recently accepted an early seperation of employment while on administrative leave.

The district did gain one knowledgeable employee. It was announced that Oxley, an audit principal with Shinn and Company, would join Manatee as its ERP project manager.

“It was a surprise to Mr. Shinn that one of his lead auditors and consultants was offered a job by one of his clients, and I apologize, because that’s not normally how we do business,” Hopes said.

The cost

The project continually expanded, along with the costs.

Manatee’s deadline changed three times during the course of its ERP project, starting with April 1, 2017, and ending with the official date of July 1, 2018.

Ciber filed for bankruptcy in April 2017, worsening turnover among the company’s staff, and adding to the overall lack of resources between Ciber and the school district.

HTC Global Services eventually purchased Ciber. A different company, Capgemini, was originally expected to purchase the struggling company, and a district official was enthusiastic about the potential change.

“Which is an excellent opportunity for us, because they’re the Mercedes-Benz of this type of business,” said Ciranna, the deputy superintendent who led Manatee’s ERP team.

A notable change followed an audit of Manatee Technical College, in Bradenton. On Aug. 19, 2016, Greene and Saunders received a letter from Roberts; then the chief financial officer; and Doug Wagner, the executive director of adult, career and technical education.

The letter was referring to a host of findings, including unauthorized transactions, poor management of cash and investments, and possible violations of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA).

Wagner now doubles as the interim deputy superintendent of operations, filling the vacancy left by Ciranna.

“Working collaboratively, it is our intention to fully resolve the remainder of these audit findings quickly and effectively,” the letter states.

After investigating two incidents, they uncovered “inconsistencies” that led Manatee to request a full audit.

The first problem occurred at MTC’s main campus: an employee found blank copies of signed purchase requests, leading to the discovery of $7,000 in unauthorized transactions. And the second problem arose at the college’s west campus: one student requested a receipt for his or her payment to the school, only to find that MTC had no record of the transaction.

Auditors identified one of the root causes of the problems at MTC: a lack of resources.

“MTC Management does not have adequate or appropriate staff resources assigned to the accounting and business functions,” the August 2016 audit report states.

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Manatee later rolled the college into its ERP project with a $7.5 million change order (task orders 2A and 2B), an effort to fix many of the audit findings. Known as the Campus Solutions project, the addition was among several increases approved by the school board, adding to the original $9.8 million ERP budget:

  • Oracle products — $232,000 for PeopleSoft training materials and support; approved under the consent agenda on Aug. 23, 2016.
  • Ciber Task Order 2A — about $4.1 million to expand the original project and implement new modules; approved unanimously on Dec. 13, 2016.
  • Ciber Task Order 2B — about $3.3 million to to implement Campus Solutions at MTC; approved unanimously on Dec. 13, 2016.
  • Oracle software — Up to $450,000 for the purchase of Campus Solutions and three modules needed for task orders 2A and 2B; approved unanimously on Dec. 13, 2016.
  • Ciber change order — $844,400 for additional work on the PeopleSoft and Campus Solutions projects, the result of complications and newly discovered requirements; approved unanimously on July 25, 2017.
  • Ciber change order — $4.25 million to extend the project deadline; unanimously approved on Oct. 24, 2017.
  • Ciber change order — $366,550 to help form business processes, training materials and a project website; unanimously approved on April 10, 2018.

Manatee hoped to save money by copying or “cloning” the ERP system used in Lee County, but copying an entire system was not feasible. The district later hoped to save money by copying upgrades designed and tested by Lee County, but Lee’s system and needs did not match the requirements in Manatee.

The district also suffered from its slow decision making. A Shinn and Company report from June 15, 2017, said the district had to close more than 70 pending decisions, many of them pending for six months to one year.

“A project of this magnitude cannot implement timely if decisions cannot be made within 3 days as agreed to in the contract,” the report states.

The school board’s makeup had changed by July 2017, and half of the new agreements were approved by a board that included Hopes, Colon, Kennedy, Miner and Gina Messenger.

Except for one instance, the district again chose to sign time-and-material contracts rather than fixed-price agreements. The risk was noted in a September 2016 report from district staff.

“As this is a Time and Material contract, delays will add to the total project cost,” it states.

The survey

A successful implementation meant very little without employees who accepted the massive change.

That’s why the school district surveyed its employees in May 2017, gauging their feelings about the transition. About 2,000 people responded to the confidential, 24-question inquiry.

“I don’t know enough about the change to have any ideas,” one respondent said. “The first I heard of it was 2 days ago in an email telling me that a survey was coming.”

Though the overhaul began more than one year before the survey was distributed, at least 1,018 employees — more than half of the respondents — had never heard of the ERP project.

Comment after comment said it was hard to answer questions with no prior knowledge of the program.

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Nearly 62 percent of respondents said their manager or supervisor was open to change, and nearly 74 percent said they were “willing to take on new responsibilities and learn new business processes.”

A majority of employees were open to change, but they weren’t given the tools to understand or embrace the new system.

“You constantly make demands, but provide no support,” an employee wrote. “You spend money on things that have no impact in the classroom. You want us to do twice as much with half the resources.”

District employees wanted more information, extensive training, stronger leadership and the opportunity to provide feedback before decisions were made. Some were also nervous about learning the new system while balancing everyday work.

Many respondents were unaware that new ERP software would affect every employee, from district administrators to school teachers. Regular tasks such as vacation requests and benefits enrollment would move from paper forms to computer screens.

Some criticism was less constructive, including a prediction that Manatee’s ERP project would be “nothing short of a complete failure.”

“This leadership team could not execute the successful changing of a light bulb,” the employee wrote. “With the management style that has been implemented under Dr. Greene it’s a wonder anything gets done.”

The same employee took aim at Saunders, then the deputy superintendent of instruction, and the district’s current interim superintendent.

“Mrs. Saunders has single handedly paralyzed the entire district through fear and intimidation. I have never seen morale so low and distrust so high on so many fronts by so many people.”

In a prepared statement, district spokesman Mike Barber distanced Saunders from the project. He also praised Manatee’s current leader for addressing the ongoing ERP problems.

“We would also like to re-emphasize the fact that since Cynthia Saunders’ professional focus was almost exclusively on the instructional side of the school district prior to becoming Superintendent on July 1, 2018, her involvement in the development and implementation of the ERP system was minimal,” Barber wrote.

But even if the users were prepared for change, employees still needed training on how to use the software — another obstacle to the project’s overall success.

On March 23, 2018, the district’s Audit Committee issued a “training alert.” Manatee was about three months away from its software launch, and the district had yet to create a full training program.

“The same people must develop the training materials, create and document business processes, and do their regular jobs,” the committee reported. “There is a reluctance on the part of Management and staff to even state the need for more resources.”

The launch

Greene’s final school board meeting was on June 26, days before she left to head Duval County Public Schools, and less than two months from the start of a new school year.

“It is never easy to be the superintendent,” she said. “You are the person that everyone looks to, especially when everything goes wrong.”

The district was five days from launching its new ERP system. On the same night it honored the superintendent, the board received an update on the project.

The report, dated June 12, said about 3,200 employees completed various training courses, while even more were either registered or awaiting registration.

It said “critical, high and medium” security risks were identified, and that district staff “continue to be overloaded.”

Susan Agruso, chair of the Audit Committee, addressed security concerns at the board meeting.

“They have been identified and they are also being taken care of by the IT department in preparation for next week,” Agruso said.

“We will say this again; it’s like a broken record: there are very few resources, we would say, considering the size of this project,” she continued. “They are spread thin.”

Agruso began to closely monitor the project in late 2017, gathering information from the ERP team and joining weekly calls with district leadership. She still feels that understaffing and burnout were the project’s major downfalls.

Many employees were asked to contribute to Manatee’s ERP project in conjunction with their everyday work.

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Susan Agruso, volunteer chair of the school district’s Audit Committee, at a past board meeting. She said the ERP system is improving, while training and business processes still need development. File photo Bradenton Herald

“This touched everybody in the school district, so you really need dedicated staff,” Agruso said in a recent interview.

After the software launched, Manatee faced significant problems with payroll and purchasing, but Agruso feels both issues were largely improved in the following months.

The most pressing issues now, she said, are training staff and documenting business practices in each department. The internal auditors will also start testing the system and analyzing whether problems at Manatee Technical College were addressed.

Greene, the former superintendent, also reflected on the project in her prepared statement. Greene said she discussed Manatee’s ERP system during a job interview with the Duval County school district.

During her May 12 interview with a Duval focus group, Manatee’s former leader seemed to note problems with Fletcher, her previous chief information officer, though she did not mention him by name.

“We thought we had that level of expertise in the leader, and about a year in figured out, no, we do not,” she said.

Fletcher previously worked as the director of information services in Seminole County’s school district. A former deputy superintendent, George Kosmac, decided to not renew Fletcher’s contract in 2014.

“I felt we could find a stronger CIO,” Kosmac said in a recent interview. “At the time I was about to retire from Seminole, and I wanted to leave the district in the best possible hands.”

Fletcher then became a chief information officer in Manatee, and one of its early leaders in the ERP project. Kosmac — who non-renewed Fletcher in Seminole — gave his former employee a glowing job recommendation.

He ranked Fletcher as a “10,” the highest on Manatee’s evaluation form, and he ranked the former CIO as “excellent” in almost every category.

Kosmac, who departed on a six-month sailing trip in early January, could not be reached for a follow-up interview.

Kosmac is a former division manager for AT&T, and he implemented an ERP system in Seminole County schools during the late 1990s. Manatee recently contracted with Kosmac, appointing him as the interim ERP director at a cost of $900 per day, an agreement that ended in late December.

Kosmac said he feels the implementation partner, Ciber, failed to completely fulfill its responsibilities, the same allegation Ciber has directed at Manatee. Kosmac also pointed to dozens of features installed by the school district.

“Trying to implement, you know, 28 or so modules simultaneously is almost madness,” he said.

The massive undertaking and tight deadlines may have caused the understaffing and burnout, he said, adding that Manatee’s original estimate of $9.8 million would be feasible at a slower pace.

He also commended Saunders, the district’s interim superintendent, for addressing a multitude of issues after the software launched.

“I feel so bad for the district about the troubles they’ve gone through, and of course the money that has been, in my view, wasted,” Kosmac said. “Hopefully it’s a learning experience to the district and to other districts.”

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