A closer look at the history of Manatee Schools’ troubled new computer system
The Manatee County School District wants to hire consultants and have its troubled software system inspected, but the process — to the satisfaction of several school board members — could take slightly longer than expected.
Board members voted 4-1 last week on a motion by Scott Hopes, giving Superintendent Cynthia Saunders the authority to spend up to $100,000 with Accenture, a global consulting firm. Chairman Dave Miner cast the dissenting vote, citing a need to slow down, review the contract and welcome public feedback.
The board granted Miner’s wish at Thursday’s meeting. Board member James Golden apologized to the school board and the community for his favorable vote on last week’s motion. He said it was a mistake, and he moved to walk back the approval given to Saunders.
“I just hope that, at the very least, I can get a second to the motion so that at least my conscience can be clear,” he said.
Vice-Chair Gina Messenger seconded his motion, and the board unanimously agreed to rescind last week’s vote.
However, even if the board hadn’t reversed Saunders’ ability to spend $100,000 with the consulting firm, there was no contract on Thursday afternoon. The company decided to halt negotiations and request a more formalized process, according to Hopes, who joined the meeting via telephone.
“In light of the focus, the attention, the press, and at least the concern of the chair and now Mr. Golden, the high executives at Accenture have chosen not to contract with the district without full procurement,” he said.
The district will have to post an RFQ, or “request for qualifications,” which invites all companies to submit a bid on specific work. The process should give Accenture a more detailed view of the district’s needs and expectations.
Caution is becoming a focal point in the district’s struggle with the new enterprise resource planning system, often referred to as ERP software. The business management software affects every aspect of the district’s operations, and it remains a major headache 10 months after its launch.
The project time line and budget continually expanded. Manatee ended up with dozens of features, or “modules,” and a collection of invoices totaling more than $27 million, though some of the invoices are currently being disputed.
Manatee plans to stop using six of the 28 features that were purchased but not fully developed, Saunders said. The district also plans to launch its request for qualifications on May 6, and the board may contract with a company by the month’s end.
“We need them quick to roll into the July 1 school year, operating much better than we did this year, but also we’ve got to be very cost effective,” Saunders said.
Apart from the contract itself, the board’s vice-chair raised another issue. Messenger said she was uncomfortable with Hopes who was actively speaking to Accenture, the global consulting firm.
Earlier in the meeting, Hopes said he and the superintendent were speaking to the company about Manatee’s struggles.
“Really, that’s our superintendent’s job,” Messenger said. “That causes me great concern, which is why I welcome this right now.”
Echoing her concerns, Miner said it was inappropriate for Hopes to have conversations with Accenture, despite his experience with ERP systems and business procurements.
Miner then asked for the opinion of Steve Dye, the school board’s attorney, on Thursday afternoon.
“You are not wrong,” Dye said. “Individual board members do not have any authority to take action on their own. The individual board members certainly have the right as a citizen to access people and events. But unless the board gives one of the members authority to take action on behalf of the board, no individual board member would have any such authority.”
In response to his fellow board members, Hopes said he was not negotiating a deal. Rather, he was keeping Accenture updated on the software problems and convincing the company that Manatee was worth helping.
“Give me the benefit of more than 35 years working in government agencies in Florida, sitting on public boards of government agencies in Florida, and going through procurements,” Hopes said of his prior experience.
Whether it be Accenture or another company, Manatee needs someone to visit the school district and assess the problems with its ERP system. The software affects employee payroll, equipment purchasing and vital reporting to government agencies, which can influence state funding.
The superintendent assured board members that state reporting and other requirements would get done, though it would take plenty of manual effort. She said the goal is to arrive at a long-term solution and move away from temporary workarounds.
“A lot of this has to do with coding, which is not any employee that works in our district,” Saunders said. “These are services that have to be contracted out.”