Manatee School District keeps struggling with new computer system

The School District of Manatee County is still addressing “mission-critical” issues with its costly business management software, or ERP system, that launched in July — more than eight months ago.

Manatee’s software, a combination of PeopleSoft and Campus Solutions, cost the school district at least $24.1 million, more than double the original estimate of $9.8 million. The cost skyrocketed for a host of reasons, including staff turnover, slow decision making, aggressive deadlines, lacking preparation and possible deception by upper management, according to a past investigation by the Bradenton Herald.

The ERP system affects every aspect of district operations, including the payment of district employees and vendors. Nick Choat, a digital strategist and the chief executive officer for Sports Clips of Southwest Florida, volunteered to manage the stabilization effort in January, and he updated the school board on Tuesday afternoon.

“The team is so slammed right now with mission critical,” he said.

Choat said every software launch begins with a reaction. Smaller issues compile while employees spend day and night on the bigger priorities, though every issue is important to someone. Tensions ran high as the school district faced dozens of software defects and confused employees last year.

“There’s a lot of heat and passion and emotion around this, because it’s work impacted, we get that,” he said.

Choat believes the initial phase — reaction — has largely passed, making way for a second phase: the cleanup. Manatee is working to fix critical issues, whether they be software defects or human errors, by giving staff the option to file a service ticket.

The district resolved 178 tickets and responded to almost 1,000 support emails in the last three months, Choat said. It also used the system to file tax documents and complete mandatory reports to the Florida Department of Education.

But district employees are still prioritizing crucial goals, especially when it comes to implementing this year’s retroactive pay and salary raises.

“I suspect there’s going to be a lot of support calls coming from that because, especially retro pay, where you’re getting paid for time you’ve already logged, people want to know: where did you get that calculation?”

Manatee continues to struggle with its purchasing cards, commonly known as P-Cards, which are regularly used to buy supplies. Choat said the district had to fix hundreds of corrupt transactions that dated back to July 1, the software’s launch.

“We’ve got the tourniquets in place now, so we’ve stopped the bleeding on this one,” he continued.

Other issues, last presented to the board in December, still remained as of Tuesday. Manatee has to simplify its overly complicated system, and the district continues to train its employees, the software users, starting with the most pressing issues.

Employees lacked proper training when the ERP system launched, leading to many of the district’s woes. But for staff to be properly trained, there must be documented business practices for each department, and Manatee is still working to establish official procedures.

Every struggle is linked to a pervasive issue throughout the project, and the greatest risk to future success: employee turnover.

“The biggest risk is if we lose these highly trained individuals at this point,” Choat said. “I’ve lost one to frustration and burnout.”

As the 20-minute update closed, board member Charlie Kennedy remarked on similarities between the past and present. If the district wants to reach the next phases — optimization and maintenance — Manatee has to support its employees with time and resources, another pervasive theme in the ERP project.

“This is a little bit of deja vu, because when we were going through the upgrade to PeopleSoft, the board kept asking, ‘Do you need resources?’ ”

The district took another leap on Tuesday by hiring its new chief information officer, the person who oversees districtwide technology projects. Scott Henson will fill the the role previously held by Rob Malloy.

Manatee’s investigation of Malloy, along with the former deputy superintendent of operations and the previous ERP project manager, are still pending as the Florida Auditor General completes a separate report on the software project.

Giuseppe Sabella, education reporter for the Bradenton Herald, holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Florida. He spent time at the Independent Florida Alligator, the Gainesville Sun and the Florida Times-Union. His coverage of education in Manatee County earned him a first place prize in the Florida Society of News Editors’ 2019 Journalism Contest. Giuseppe also spent one year in Charleston, W.Va., earning a first-place award for investigative reporting.