In 2000, Maricopa County, Arizona, began looking for a new finance and human-resource information system for its 26 school districts. The county’s CIMS legacy system was showing its age and causing more headaches for the business office with every passing payroll period.

“The system was outdated, slow, not well supported, and restricted to very select, pre-defined functions,” recalls Jean Bandes, information technology operations manager for the Maricopa County School Superintendent’s Office. “Training new people on it was difficult, and we were getting an increasing number of requests from our customers that the system couldn’t address. Unless you were a programmer, it was very hard to get anything out of the database besides a few reports.”

Maricopa County schools have more than 600,000 K-12 students and 13,000 school employees. The process by which this school system solved its problems is well worth studying, especially for school districts facing similar technology issues or for those considering the purchase of a new finance/HR business information system.

Start with good people and a plan

In 2000, the county formed a 10-person committee to spearhead the process of purchasing a new Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system. The committee, which included representatives from the county and each school system, was charged with the following goals and objectives:

  • Consolidation of HR and financial tasks for all 26 districts (including payroll, general ledger, reports, year-end projects, mailings, and meeting statutory requirements);
  • Transition from the legacy system without interruption of workflow;
  • Savings in time, money, and personnel expenses;
  • Improved efficiency (eliminating redundant databases through centralization, for example, and faster response to requests from district staff, customers, governing agencies, and the public);
  • Flexible configuration of the system for multiple users (such as county officials, individual schools, administrators, business office staff, and future user access via a secure web portal);
  • Easier, more user-friendly functions (especially higher-level data extraction); and
  • Comprehensive user training before, during, and after installation.

    IT knowledge and people skills

    Having the right people on the committee was essential. The committee’s IT talent quotient was quite high, but people skills were equally important. Those qualities included teamwork, motivation, and the ability to communicate effectively–within the committee, naturally, but also in the larger context of Maricopa County and the entire school system.

    “Our business and administrative offices have always had great employees over the years,” says Bandes. “That makes a huge difference. They’re smart, nice to our customers, motivated, and very capable when it comes to training other people, which is essential.”

    A comprehensive evaluation procedure was outlined, identifying specific criteria and a defined framework for rating potential vendors and systems.

    “To us, ‘due diligence’ meant that our decisions had to be made with extra care, covered all foreseeable situations, and were widely evaluated,” says Bandes.

    In 2004, Maricopa County awarded its contract to Windsor Management Group, based in Phoenix, and selected the company’s Infinite Visions Enterprise Edition, an integrated ERP system offering financial, HR, payroll, and related business data management.

    Installation: The beginning of a long-term relationship

    The installation of an ERP system is complex and extensive in reach and scope. It requires a true partnership between vendor and customer. The collaborative relationship initiated in 2004 between Maricopa County and Windsor Management Group is ongoing today.

    “Every installation is unique in its own way,” says Lou Porreco, director of IT at Windsor Management Group, recalling the Maricopa County project. “But Maricopa County truly exceeded our expectations in every way.” From his technical perspective, Porreco gives Bandes and her IT staff very high marks. “They knew exactly what they wanted but were also open to suggestions–especially those that saved time, money, or increased efficiency. Things went very smoothly from the beginning.”

    Porreco also praises Maricopa County’s thoroughness in communicating with all 26 school districts throughout the project. “Often,” he notes, “knowledge of and interest in a new ERP system are high at the business management level, but drop off at the employee level. That can really hamper and add costs to an installation. Maricopa County did a great job keeping its districts interested and involved.”

    Plan for future growth

    Maricopa County hosts the databases of all 26 school districts in a single data center, via an SQL server running Microsoft Windows 2003 with an external storage array for the data. Six Citrix servers are used by all the districts, which access the system via high-speed DS3 lines.

    From her years of experience in IT, Bandes knew that once users began working with the new ERP system, more users would be attracted, along with requests for additional features. “It’s human nature,” says Bandes. “People always want more features once they learn the basics and see what a system is capable of.” Anticipating that, Maricopa County made the pre-installation decision to double the system’s overall capacity and move from 56kps modem connections to high-speed DS3 lines in every school. It’s a decision that proved to be very wise.

    Porreco offers some additional technical and strategic advice to school districts considering a new information system of any kind:

  • Appoint a project manager who will be responsible for keeping the entire organization informed about what’s going on, managing expectations, charting progress, and keeping interest and involvement high.

  • Trust the vendor. Reputable vendors know their products and want the best for their customers. Invest in the enterprise-quality hardware vendors recommend. “White box” or off-brand equipment, although less expensive initially, will cost more in the long run and deliver inferior performance along the way.

  • Centralize data services in a dedicated network center. This approach has significant cost and administrative advantages over a system installed in a distributed environment (where each desktop PC contains its own operating software).

    Training: The foundation for a successful installation

    User training for the first eight districts was done by Windsor Management Group. During that time, Maricopa County’s school system IT staff were being trained, too–as future trainers themselves. It was the beginning of Windsor Management Group’s practice of “training the trainers” at each of its installations.

    After the first group of school districts was brought online in 2004, the training baton was handed to Maricopa County. At first, Bandes wondered if the county might be setting the bar a bit too high for itself. “But we did it,” she says. “We trained the rest of our 18 districts in just 12 months, working with Windsor’s materials and some of our own. The cost savings of doing it ourselves were substantial.”

    Windsor Management Group, whose main offices are located in Maricopa County, made its state-of-the-art classroom facilities available, free of charge, to Bandes and her staff during this initial, critically important period. Bandes gratefully accepted; adequate county office space was often impossible to find at the time. It’s an example of Windsor Management Group’s “Customer for Life” philosophy and the firm’s commitment to responsiveness, client service, and support. Windsor Management Group, which was founded in 1980 by former school district business professionals, is dedicated to educational achievement. It is this driving force that motivates the company today, as evidenced by its 99-percent customer retention rate.

    By 2005, the system was fully active in every school in Maricopa County, as well as in all the county’s offices–for a total of 460 user accounts (with up to 200 users accessing the system at any given moment). The new ERP system was up and running on schedule, with no interruptions in workflow and substantially below budget. Since that time, it has run flawlessly, without any downtime.

    Tangible benefits

    Kelley Baysinger is the finance director for Maricopa County’s Liberty School District, one of the first districts to switch over to the Enterprise Edition. “The new system is like night and day compared to the old one,” Baysinger says. “The Enterprise Edition gives us lots of flexibility in its setup and allows us to design the database in the way that works best for us, within certain parameters. We can easily pull just about any piece of information we need from the system. The efficiency we’ve gained is tremendous.”

    At most of the larger districts, payroll posting went from two hours to less than one. “Nearly all of the routine tasks we do now in a fraction of the time,” says Bandes. “Perhaps the most popular overall feature of the system, though, is the ease with which users can sort, filter, and screen data, and then export it to Microsoft Excel, or do a document mail merge–all from a centrally-located database. No more maintaining separate employee lists.”

    Baysinger offers this final bit of wisdom to avoid getting overwhelmed by the process of selecting a new system and the multitude of features available in a top-quality ERP system: “Don’t focus on the little pieces. Sit back on a regular basis and look at the big picture–your goals and what you want to accomplish with a new system. Then work backwards from there, and the little pieces will fall into place.”

    Bradford W. Veley is a freelance technical writer associated with Trade Press Services.