Education

Worried about tax hike vote, ex-schools chief kept mum about software woes, former staff say

A closer look at the history of Manatee Schools’ troubled new computer system

Manatee County School District’s new computer software system has been riddled with delays, millions of dollars in cost overruns and other problems. It is still not fixed.
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Manatee County School District’s new computer software system has been riddled with delays, millions of dollars in cost overruns and other problems. It is still not fixed.

Former Superintendent Diana Greene withheld from the school board and the public information related to the school district’s troubled multimillion-dollar software project, an effort to better the chances of winning voter approval of a property tax increase last year, according to two former employees.

In response, two school board members said they were less than surprised. Each said the former superintendent had a tendency to control information and vital narratives, but Greene decried the allegations, noting that both of her accusers left amid an internal investigation of problems with the software project.

A district investigator unearthed the new allegation while reviewing several former employees who were accused of wrongdoing in the software roll-out, commonly referred to as the ERP project. Its budget spiked from less than $10 million to $27 million over more than two years, the result of understaffing, blunders and changes to the plan, according to a past review by the Bradenton Herald.

District investigator Troy Nelson was focused on Ron Ciranna, the former deputy superintendent of operations; Rob Malloy, the former chief information officer; and Angie Oxley, the former project manager. Each left the district while on administrative leave.

In his August 2018 interview with the district investigator, Malloy said he received a proposal from Ciber, the company hired to implement Manatee’s new business management software, and he felt the agreement would solve many project-related headaches. It would have replaced the school district’s existing contract from a separate company.

But the agreement — received on Feb. 19, 2018 — was never scheduled for a review by the school board, Malloy said, because then-superintendent Greene was concerned with an upcoming vote on the tax referendum, scheduled for March 20, 2018.

The special election was about one month away, and the school board had already approved several budget increases for the software project. Revisiting the controversial subject could hurt the chances of passing a tax increase, which was later approved by voters.

“Malloy indicated that this agreement never went forward, because Dr. Greene did not want to put a project increase to the Board while the millage referendum was so close,” the report states.

Greene is now the superintendent of Duval County Public Schools, where she is campaigning for a half-cent sales tax to address nearly $2 billion in construction and renovations, according to area media outlets.

Greene sent her response to the latest allegations through a Duval County district spokeswoman, pointing to an interview she had with Manatee’s investigator.

“Greene said she would be in favor if it were cheaper, however we were in the middle of a contract with Agitech that went through September 2018,” the report states. “This change would need to wait until closer to the end of the contract.”

There was a timing issue, but it had no relation to Manatee’s upcoming tax referendum, according to an emailed statement from the former superintendent. She said the district had a responsibility to honor its existing contract before it considered a new agreement.

“The information you received is inaccurate,” Greene continued. “Let’s keep in mind that the employees and contractors being quoted here are no longer with the district.”

Ciranna, who was the deputy superintendent of operations and head of the ERP project, echoed the allegations made by Malloy. In his interview with the district investigator, Ciranna touched on the need for a new contract, and on Greene’s response.

The district hired Agitech Solutions as the “managed service provider” in September 2016, making it responsible for maintenance and general upkeep of the new ERP system. Several project leaders, including Ciranna and Malloy, felt that Agitech was doing a poor job.

They felt Ciber knew more about the system, having worked alongside district staff to implement the software. They also believed the switch would be more cost effective, a claim that Manatee officials disputed in the report.

“What happened was, back in that December time frame, Dr. Greene, the Audit Committee and Shinn and Company were all aware of Agitech not doing what they needed to be doing,” Ciranna said. “They knew we needed to change horses in middle of the stream.”

“Dr. Greene didn’t want anything, any big issues to come out that could one way or the other impact the referendum,” he continued.

Project leaders felt the district would benefit from a new maintenance provider, but they also knew the ERP software would require a state reporting “module,” or feature, allowing them to send required information to the Florida Department of Education.

Ciber, the company hired to carry out Manatee’s project, proposed a contract to become the maintenance provider and build the needed reporting tool. The other option was to continue with Agitech Solutions, despite lingering concerns.

Notes from the district’s internal auditors — Carr, Riggs and Ingram — explained the situation. Auditors interviewed Malloy and Oxley about three weeks after the software launch.

“Agitech is a small organization that was struggling to meet the needs of the school district,” the notes state. “In January a draft change order was written to move the Managed Service contract to Ciber for a three year agreement and part of that agreement included the development of DOE Reporting.”

“However, due to leadership decisions that change order was not presented to the Board,” the notes state.

School board reacts

During his time in the district, former board member John Colon questioned several aspects of the ERP project. He was suspicious of the original budget, and he criticized the use of a time-and-materials contract rather than a fixed-price agreement.

Responding to accusations that Greene halted a proposal to award the maintenance contract to Ciber, protecting the tax referendum, Colon said that was “probably true.”

“From what I know of Dr. Greene and the district, she had a habit of trying to make sure everything was properly formulated for the digestion of the board,” he said.

The Bradenton Herald previously reported on similar accusations against Greene, raised by Robert Johnson, the former director of planning and performance management for Manatee schools.

He said the district’s former chief information officer, Patrick Fletcher, stripped the original ERP project of vital features to lower the cost and increase the chances of school board approval.

Johnson believed a directive came from Greene.

“Patrick went through it and just started, on a whiteboard, marking stuff off,” Johnson previously said. “No decision of that magnitude gets made in isolation.”

The district also formed a project team that regularly met for ERP-related matters. According to the minutes, a January 2016 meeting was attended by Greene, Johnson, Fletcher and current Superintendent Cynthia Saunders, then a deputy superintendent. Also in the meeting were Don Hall, a former deputy superintendent; and Lourdes Alcox, a project manager.

“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.

In a recent interview, Colon shared suspicions about Fletcher and his alleged tampering with the project’s budget, an idea that may have started with Greene.

“If Mr. Fletcher did do it, he most likely did it at her request,” Colon said. “That would not surprise me in any way, shape or form.”

Board member Scott Hopes expressed a similar lack of surprise after hearing the allegations about Greene. Though he questioned the proposal and the intentions of former district employees, he said it should have been a public conversation.

“What we have learned subsequent to the former superintendent leaving is that there were a number of issues that should have been brought to the board, making them public,” Hopes said.

“I believe there was information withheld from the board in order to better position the referendum before the voters,” he continued.

If the accusations are true, board member Charlie Kennedy said he could empathize with the former superintendent. Kennedy said he felt Greene had authority to make crucial decisions, and to weigh the consequences.

“It would have been nice to be included, but I don’t feel slighted,” Kennedy said.

An estimated $33 million in extra tax revenue was on the line in the millage referendum, money slated for employee salaries and the improvement of science, technology, engineering and mathematics programs.

“Do you want to put that at risk over one bad news cycle about an additional contract for the ERP system?” Kennedy said. “I kind of have a foot on both sides of the fence.”

Board Chair Dave Miner and Vice-Chair Gina Messenger, who also were on the board at the time of the millage election, could not be reached for comment.

Superintendent Saunders had nothing to say about the accusations against her longtime colleague, Greene.

Saunders worked as the deputy superintendent of instruction during the ERP project. She became the superintendent on July 1 — when Manatee launched its new software, and the same day that Greene started her job in Duval County.

“I’m not familiar with that, so I wouldn’t be the person to ask that question,” Saunders said.

Were there unauthorized payments?

Built within the school district’s new business management software, the state reporting tool was vital because it affects district funding. And though Ciber’s proposal never went before the school board, the company moved forward and built the reporting feature, according to the district’s investigation.

Ciber was confident the school board would later review and accept its proposal, said Jose Peres, the delivery director for Ciber, in his August 2018 discussion with the district investigator.

“As good partners, we kind of moved forward with the expectation that it would be taken to the board for discussion,” Peres said.

“That was around millage conversations, so the focus was in those particular items,” he also noted, explaining the delay.

According to his interview, Ciber expected the district to either award the maintenance contract, or to pay solely for the reporting tool. Neither happened, sparking the investigation of unauthorized spending.

Ciber violated its original contract by working on a project without district approval, and Malloy signed the related invoices, leading the district to spend about $90,000 on unauthorized work. The company followed up with an email and said the paid and unpaid invoices were a mistake, according to the district’s report.

“Malloy contends this was merely an oversight on his part and Ciber did credit this amount back to the district,” it states. “However, since that time, Ciber has now billed the District for the development costs of this component.”

Manatee used the state reporting tool after its software launched, making it liable for the cost, so the school board approved a negotiated payment of $163,000, according to the report.

“During early conversations with Superintendent Saunders, she said Mr. Ciranna accepted responsibility for authorizing Ciber to complete work on this state reporting component that had not received Board approval,” the investigator’s report notes.

There were also questions about a so-called “gentleman’s agreement,” the wording used in meeting notes from Amanda Brameister, a former business analyst manager for the district. She “did not recall the context of the entry,” the investigator reported.

The meeting on Oct. 25, 2017, included Malloy and Peres, the Ciber director. The district investigator questioned a line that read, “gentleman’s agreement for later contract for DOE rptg support,” perhaps a reference to the state reporting tool.

The investigator questioned whether Ciber included the state reporting tool in its proposal for maintenance services as a free incentive to change service providers.

Ciranna believed the tool would be free, noting that Ciber was developing the tool and using Manatee as a “guinea pig,” an experiment to see if they could develop the feature and market its creation to other school districts, according to the report.

But the company executive, Peres, said the tool’s cost was built into the maintenance agreement. Though district and company employees disagreed on the terms, they all refuted claims that an unethical deal took place.

The maintenance aspect of Ciber’s proposal never came to fruition. On August 28 of last year, the school board renewed Manatee’s contract with Agitech at a cost of $395,000 for one year.

With a unanimous vote, board members increased the contract’s maximum amount to $850,000 on Nov. 13.

“Issue logs within the system do document noted concerns, however all are shown to have been resolved,” the district investigator reported.

“When Superintendent Saunders met with representatives from Agitech, they were completely unaware that the project leadership was unhappy with their services and desire to move away from them as the managed services provider,” he continued.

Overall, the investigation concluded that Ciranna authorized project-related work and salary payments without approval from the school board or the superintendent. Malloy — also accused of unauthorized spending — said he is working on a detailed rebuttal.

Under its section on “potential violations,” the report said it found “no statutory or policy violations regarding Ms. Oxley.”

“The district met with representatives from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and reviewed this matter,” the report concludes. “District employee involvement does not rise to a criminal level that will be investigated by their agency. “

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