Capping a year and a half of frustration, officials at Maryland’s Montgomery County Public Schools (K-12, enr. 131,000) announced they would discontinue use of a $4 million student information system from the Canadian firm Administrative Assistants Ltd. because it failed to meet their expectations.

Though officials were hesitant to assess blame for the failed project, a district spokesman cited “a long list of problems with the software itself” as the main reason for the decision. Company officials, meanwhile, insist that Montgomery County tried to bring the system up too quickly, and they point to successful implementations of the software in other school districts.

Regardless of why the project ultimately failed, its troubles reportedly led to the firing of the district’s former technology director last year. The district has returned to using the 25-year-old legacy system it used before trying to upgrade to the new system.

A ‘long, tearful day’

Montgomery County chose Administrative Assistants’ web-enabled SIS (a generic acronym for “student information system,” but also the name of the company’s software) to replace its legacy system three years ago.

Though district officials would not name the systems integrator in charge of deploying the software, the Montgomery County Gazette reported that the district had contracted with BAE Systems—a global technologies company with United States headquarters in nearby Rockville—to implement the system.

“The $4 million figure includes the original purchase of the software, developing the software to meet the needs of the district, [plus] training and deployment,” said district spokesman Brian Porter. “We knew within the first couple weeks [of SIS’s installation] that it wasn’t working.”

The software was installed in August 1999 and crashed the first day of school, unable to complete student scheduling for that semester, Porter said.

“Believe me, it was a long, tearful day for a lot of people, and it continued for several weeks after that,” he said.

According to the Montgomery County Gazette, SIS “made an inauspicious debut in September [1999], revealing numerous glitches and crippling student registration, attendance, and scheduling as 131,000 students began the academic year.”

The Gazette also reported that a second wave of problems took place in February 2000, when about 2,000 middle and high school report cards were mailed out containing incorrect grades or credits, while some 10,000 report cards had grades listed in the wrong places.

“The litany of technical problems is long and complicated. [The system] resulted in a massive district-wide failure in our ability to handle day-to-day school functions, including attendance, transfers, and ultimately report cards,” said Porter. He cited “a long list of problems with the software itself” as reason for “the superintendent’s lack of confidence in using [SIS] in the future.”

John Q. Porter, chief information officer for Montgomery County Public Schools (no relation to Brian Porter), joined the district in January 2000, after the initial deployment of SIS had failed. He replaced Ronald H. Walsh, former head of the office of Global Access Technology, who was fired after the problems with SIS surfaced.

“I made a recommendation in March to take the system down and assess whether we’d put it back up. After we did the assessment, we recommended to the board that we go back to the legacy system,” he said.

In a Jan. 11 story in the Washington Post, Superintendent Jerry D. Weast is quoted as saying, “SIS will not work. We have no intention of going back to that. We will purchase a new system, and how quickly we can use it will depend on how robust a system we can find.”

That’s news to the software provider.

According to Debbie Baldwin, vice president of administration and corporate counsel for Administrative Assistants Ltd., “Mr. Weast’s recent statements took us by complete surprise. It is our understanding that Montgomery County intends to continue to use portions of our system in the near future—and the full system within the next two to three years.”

While John Porter said no legal action has been taken thus far, he acknowledged that the district is “in legal discussions about what happened with the integrator of the software product.”

“I can say that the system did not function properly for us. We were at the forefront of using a product that did not fulfill our requirements,” he said. “I know of other school districts that have had more success with the same system, but we brought the system up all at one time. [Other districts] have been phasing it in [piece by piece].”

Measuring accountability

According to John Porter, Montgomery County tried to bring the system up all at once because of Y2K-related time constraints.

“Because of our time frame, we had to do ‘work arounds’ because portions of the software weren’t ready yet,” he said. That meant district employees had to find other ways to perform certain administrative functions, and complications arose from the ensuing confusion.

“Things were not debugged properly. The [difficulty] with a system like this is that one problem reverberates throughout the whole system,” he said.

Administrative Assistants Ltd. points to this rush to get the system up and running as the chief reason for its failure.

“Any large, complex software implementation takes at least two to three years to become fully mature,” according to a company statement. “The implementation team must deal with the technical issues associated with converting multiple legacy systems into a common enterprise-wide information system, as well as the people issues involved with the introduction of a new software system.

“In addition to anticipated learning curve concerns, most users who have used a legacy system for 25 years do not readily take ownership of a new, more complex system. Change is never easy.”

The company also denied that its software was at fault for the system failure.

“The severity of many of [the district’s] problems have stemmed from its internal political structure,” officials said. “During the start of school in September 1999, [the district’s] student system performance seriously slowed, and [it] experienced numerous problem reports from schools and users.

“Although many of the start-of-school issues were characterized as ‘software problems,’ most were, in fact, due to hardware and memory problems, program conflicts with [the district’s] in-house development, poor requirements definition, and internal training issues.”

“There have been a lot of issues,” John Porter acknowledged. “First of all, it’s a new technology, and the integrators were new to school systems. Also, we customized the application significantly to fit our needs.”

According to company officials, those enhancements also were a direct cause of the system failure.

“Over the life of the contract, [the district] has only utilized one-third of the total SIS application and has requested a high volume of complex enhancements to the software, which are unique to their district,” said the company. “The heavy volume of development demanded by [the district] was never anticipated by AAL, and the continued support of [the district] by AAL has often been to the detriment of the rest of its client base.”

Success story

One district that has experienced success with Administrative Assistants’ SIS is Blue Valley School District (K-12, enr. 17,000) in Overland Park, Kansas.

According to Ruth Weddle, Blue Valley’s director of information services, her district began using SIS around the same time as Montgomery County and has brought portions of the system online over the past three years.

“Blue Valley paid for implementation services from Tracor—the company that eventually became BAE Systems—for one year. After that time, the district opted to deal directly with [Administrative Assistants Ltd.],” she said.

Blue Valley is in its third year of using the software, and Weddle said it has become easier for district employees to use over time.

“I can say from experience that any changes, particularly software conversions, are very difficult for schools,” she said.

Open lines of communication may be one reason Blue Valley has been successful in implementing SIS.

“Our district has a technology integration committee made up of board members, teachers, and patrons. While we’ve been implementing the student information system, we’ve tried very hard to keep the lines of communication open so that all parties know what’s going on,” said Weddle.

But, she added, “We are a much smaller district than Montgomery County, and we are still implementing portions of the software.”

At first, district employees were uncomfortable with the software, but they have come to appreciate the streamlined system, said Weddle.

“[During] the first year, the typical response was a comparison to the old system. People asked. ‘What can this system do, and how can I do that?’ After that, people really began to say, ‘Wow, look at all the things we can do with this system.’ Now, I think probably 95 percent [of the district’s staff] are very satisfied with SIS,” she said.

A growing problem?

Montgomery County is the third large, high-profile school district within the last year to announce it was not satisfied with the performance of a multi-million dollar software system due to technical failures and problems with implementation.

In October, the poorly executed implementation of a new computer record-keeping system left San Francisco Unified School District officials facing a difficult decision: scrap the entire system, which already had cost the district nearly $5 million—or spend $1.7 million more to pay the software provider, PeopleSoft, to bring it up to speed.

Sandy Rosen, a consultant hired by the district, and PeopleSoft public relations manager Lisa Sion both attributed the district’s problems to inexperienced staff and a lack of leadership.

“The old system did not work very well, but people were used to it,” Sion said. “After PeopleSoft was installed, there was no internal driver to enforce the use of the new software. Bugs were created … as a result of people trying to work their way around the system.”

In December, eSchool News reported that the Philadelphia School District’s new computer accounting system was inefficiently purchased, is over budget, and “still doesn’t do many of the things it was intended to do,” according to an audit by the Philadelphia city controller’s office.

The school district purchased Advantage 2000, a $15.6 million system, from American Management Systems Inc. (AMS) in January 1998 for financial management, human resources, and payroll. But after nearly three years, the price tag has escalated to almost $36 million—and school district officials still have not determined the cost of future improvements or additional services, according to the audit.

Why are school districts across the country losing the farm—and millions of taxpayer dollars—on high-end software systems?

Though he would not comment specifically on any particular school system, education market analyst Peter Grunwald of Grunwald Associates said, “It’s clear that, historically, the technology industry has made some errors in their dealing with schools. One of those errors is thinking of school districts as the ‘typical customer’ and viewing the school market as any other vertical market. The reality is that districts are very different.”

According to Grunwald, because of school systems’ internal structures, they often can’t change direction and integrate new systems as quickly as private sector businesses.

But “on the flip side, yes, school districts need to do a better job training and supporting their personnel as new technologies are introduced,” he said. “There has always been a problem around the capacity of technology companies and school districts talking to one another.”

Grunwald believes the successful software provider will be one “that does not have a distinct barrier between curriculum and administrative activities. … Our view is that it will take a much more integrated approach to work. The software that meets the specific needs of schools in a thoughtful and insightful way will be successful.”

Links:

Montgomery County Public Schools
http://mcps.k12.md.us

Administrative Assistants Ltd.
http://www.admassist.com

BAE Systems
http://www.baesystems.com

Blue Valley School District
http://www.bluevalleyk12.org

Grunwald Associates
http://www.grunwald.com