Ohio school district takes on Lucent Technologies: Company denies wrongdoing, promises to fulfill contract

The superintendent of a 3,500-student Ohio school district is charging Lucent Technologies with abandoning work it has been paid nearly $1 million to do in favor of drumming up more school business. At least five other school districts in the state have voiced similar complaints about the communications equipment giant, the school chief said.

Superintendent James Crawford, head of the Whitehall (Ohio) City School District near Columbus, told eSchool News he also is displeased with the company’s handling of a personnel matter. Shortly after the school district’s technology director signed a “scope of work” contract with Lucent without the superintendent’s knowledge, Crawford said, the company received “hundreds of thousands of dollars” from the district and later hired that same technology director as a Lucent account executive.

A company spokesman said Lucent would not give Whitehall’s former technology director permission to speak with eSchool News, but Lucent denied any wrongdoing and insisted it was “moving heaven and earth” in an effort to fulfill its contract obligations to the Whitehall schools.

Officials in Whitehall dispute that. After waiting one year and spending nearly $1 million, they claim, their five-school district is not much closer to its goal of a high-speed, fiber-optic wide area network (WAN) than it was when it started. Instead, they say, the district bought itself a sluggish, partial network, sustained $140,000 in expenses that should have been unnecessary, and was faced with the need to recruit a new technology director.

The company at the center of this controversy evolved from what was once known as Bell Laboratories. Lucent Technologies is now a $99 billion spin-off of AT&T. AT&T is best known as a long distance telephone service provider, but Lucent Technologies now is an independently traded New Jersey company that specializes in the sale and installation of internet and networking hardware. Its chief rival in the school field and elsewhere is Cisco Systems, a much smaller California firm.

Lucent Technologies made news in the business pages several weeks ago when its market value exceeded that of AT&T for the first time. AT&T has a market value pegged at approximately $96 billion.

But all of Lucent’s financial success doesn’t soothe school officials in Whitehall. They’re saying the firm abandoned construction of the schools’ $1.9 million network nearly four months ago. That was in January, when Don Moore, Whitehall’s former technology director, left the district to work as an account executive for Lucent.

“Back burner”

Moore was overseeing Lucent’s installation of the WAN, Whitehall officials said, and was supposed to have completed the network by last August. But the technology director and Lucent left the district with an incomplete, inoperable network, according to school leaders. Work on the WAN has ground to a complete halt since Moore’s departure, said Joyce Hinds, Whitehall’s curriculum director.

Students at Whitehall have some internet access now, but only because of last-minute efforts by the district.

Lucent counters school district charges with the contention that Whitehall schools haven’t obtained the necessary city permits to enable Lucent technicians to complete their work.

Whitehall says it was Lucent’s responsibility to obtain the permits and that the company is ignoring the needs of the district in favor of garnering more school contracts in Ohio, where the state’s SchoolNet program provides almost $100 million in funds to install video, data, and voice networks to all classrooms in the state.

“[Lucent was] too busy going around the state getting more contracts, and they just put us on the back burner,” said Supt. Crawford.

Crawford says he’s not the only school executive unhappy with Lucent. After putting out a query on an internet listserve, Crawford says he heard from officials in five other Ohio school districts, all with complaints about Lucent.

One is Rick Berdine, formerly of the Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, City School District. Berdine said his former district was able to work out its contract disputes with Lucent, but only after “a drawn-out process that took some aggravation.”

Berdine also echoed what Crawford said about feeling the school district was being “put on the back burner” while Lucent rushed to secure bigger, multimillion-dollar contracts around the state.

But neglect wasn’t always what Whitehall got from Lucent, Crawford said. According to Crawford, George Raaber, a Lucent account executive who works with the district, told the superintendent that Lucent would make the Whitehall school system the “flagship district” of central Ohio.

Whitehall officials are equally miffed about what happened with the technology director. The district’s school attorney reportedly is looking into possible employment contract violations, said Crawford.

The former technology director was unavailable for comment, but Lucent denies any wrongdoing. “We have done nothing illegal or unethical,” said Larry Kearney, regional public relations manager for Lucent. He described Moore’s departure from Whitehall as “abrupt.”

Where’s the WAN?

Lucent agreed to build a WAN that would connect the central office and all five schools in the Whitehall district. The WAN was supposed to give students immediate, dedicated access to the internet by August of 1997, Hinds said.

In addition, Whitehall wanted an updated telephone system and internet access for up to eight computers per classroom. Whitehall, a 35 percent low-income school district, plans to spend $3 million on its technology plan over the next five years.

But months after the project was supposed to have been completed, students still didn’t have access to the internet, and school district officials began putting pressure on the technology director to get Lucent to speed up construction.

In November of 1997, according to Crawford, Technology Director Moore signed a “scope of work” form without the superintendent’s knowledge. It was a few weeks later, in December, Crawford said, that “hundreds of thousands of dollars” were paid out to Lucent.

Moore left Whitehall in January of 1998. A week later his employment as a Lucent account executive was announced.

After Moore’s departure, Crawford was shocked to discover the state of the WAN, he said. Classrooms were inadequately wired for any kind of networking, he said, and in one building–Whitehall’s high school–cheaper copper wires had been installed where fiber optic should have been.

The superintendent said Moore and a Lucent employee had told him the network was near completion.

“They both pulled the wool over our eyes and led us to believe everything was OK when it really wasn’t,” said Crawford. “They breached an awful lot of trust with our community–I don’t think we could recommend them.”

Crawford said he hasn’t able to learn at exactly what point Moore applied for the Lucent job. Neither could Crawford find out, he said, who at Lucent interviewed Moore, who hired him, or when Lucent officials knew Moore would be leaving Whitehall.

After discovering this winter how far its classrooms were from internet connectivity, the district had to scramble to provide some networking capability–such as eMail–to students before the school year ended.

One school official estimates that more than $140,000 had to be spent on last-minute purchases and staff overtime to try to provide some technology programming to students as planned.

“We’ve lost quite a bit of money–quite a bit,” said the official.

In dispute

Regarding the disputed responsibility for obtaining city permits, the district maintains that a Lucent account executive promised to get the permits on March 20, but Lucent denies it.

Discussing the matter with eSchool News, Kearney, the Lucent spokesman, said permits were necessary only for cabling that extends beyond the school district’s property. He didn’t explain why cables couldn’t be installed on school property. Nor did he explain why Lucent, before project progress halted, was able to install a fiber-optic connection between Whitehall’s central administrative office and the high school.

In any case, according to Ryan Fletcher, the school district’s network administrator, that headquarters-to-high school hookup still is running at only half the speed Lucent originally promised. Lucent technologists have been back to troubleshoot, Fletcher acknowledged, but he says they haven’t been able to figure out why the connection isn’t working at full speed.

“It just doesn’t seem like anything’s getting fixed,” Fletcher said. “The equipment just isn’t operating.”

“Not significant”

The district began petitioning Lucent in January to come back and finish the network. “We have asked them to come back and provide a solution for the rest of the computers,” Hinds said. “We’ve asked them to work on the speed of the network, and we’ve asked for fiber optic for the WAN.

“We were not significant to them,” summed Hinds.

Whitehall already has paid Lucent $905,000, school officials say–about half the total cost of the project. In addition, to help the schools connect to the internet on their own, the school district used $92,720 of SchoolNet funding. SchoolNet is Ohio’s program to help schools connect to the internet.

Lucent’s Kearney said his company is “moving heaven and earth to get the system in.” Lucent Technologies expects the Whitehall project will be completed this August, Kearney told eSchool News. If that deadline is met, it would bring the project to a close exactly one year after the date school officials say it was promised.

Lucent Technologies

eSchool News Staff

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