Florida School District Struggles with ERP Project Troubles

The $20 million system in Manatee County is over budget, crippled by defects and lacks resources to be finished.

by Giuseppe Sabella, The Bradenton Herald / September 7, 2018

(TNS) — A meeting at the School Support Center revealed that support is lacking in the School District of Manatee County.

Over the course of about seven months, less than 170 employees worked more than 7,400 hours to test the district’s new business management system, known as enterprise resource planning (ERP) software. Project leaders and internal auditors agreed a year ago that more people were needed to properly finish the massive task, but help never came.

Speaking at a meeting of the Citizens Audit Committee on Thursday, Byron Shinn — partner-in-charge at Carr, Riggs and Ingram — said monthly audit reports warned about the need for more resources.

“There’s real burnout going on, and there’s real frustration,” he said. “Attitude is so important.”

The school board approved half a dozen positions in the information technology department about five months ago. The positions are vital for a department that handles dozens of projects outside of the ERP system.

Board Chair Scott Hopes was visibly frustrated as he discussed the vacant positions on Thursday.

“It’s a real problem for us as the governing board to go through the effort of approving the positions, approving job descriptions, approving the budget and finding out the positions aren’t filled,” he said.

It seems the unfilled positions are now at risk of remaining vacant while the district researches any costs associated with completing the ERP project, which is still crippled by dozens of defects. The project’s budget ballooned from less than $10 million to more than $20 million after it was expanded and mismanaged.

“It’s a budget issue,” said Doug Wagner, who is temporarily serving as the deputy superintendent of business services and operations. “We’re seeing if we have enough money to fill those positions.”

Hopes believes the positions were never advertised, a view that aligns with recent audit findings.

In a new report, the district’s internal auditors noted a delay in the posting of jobs and hiring of new employees, which caused issues before the 2018-19 school year could even begin.

“This was corrected by swift action by the Superintendent directing the immediate posting of the new positions,” it states. “However, this again continues to show a systematic issue which is continuing to directly impact the district and its services.”

Their report also noted delays in the creation of training materials, which district employees needed to understand the new software. And it took weeks for internal audit reports to reach the right people after they were presented to the audit committee and school board.

The burden on district staff was worsened by problems at Ciber, the vendor tasked with implementing Manatee’s new ERP system. Ciber went bankrupt in May 2017, about one year after it was contracted for the project, leading to more turnover among its project leaders, according to the audit report.

Such missteps had serious consequences for the district and its leaders. Thursday’s conversation was limited due to an ongoing investigation. School board attorney James Dye was on hand to make sure nobody divulged sensitive information.

It’s unclear whether the referenced “investigation” was a review by the Florida Auditor General, which was previously reported, or something entirely different. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement visited district officials two weeks ago.

The new audit report noted “several matters of importance,” including a “recommendation of written Notice of Preservation of Evidence.”

Ron Ciranna, deputy superintendent of business services and operations, is on paid administrative leave while the district investigates unauthorized payments and “scope of work” related to the ERP project. A recent report said $107,000 in purchases were made without board approval.

Internal auditors will present four recommendations at the school board meeting on Tuesday. They believe the district should provide more training, oversee the completion of business processes, evaluate its hiring process and grant auditors full access to the program for testing.

And the audit committee voted unanimously to notify the school board of unfilled positions in the IT department.

“The administration did not comply with the board’s authorization” to hire the new employees, said Susan Agruso, chair of the committee, as she read from the approved motion.

Though the system went live on July 1, more than 60 defects still exist. George Kosmac, a retired deputy superintendent from Seminole County, said he expects to uncover more problems with further testing.

He was hired by the superintendent to create a report on the project and to aide in its completion. He recently joined the school board chair and Superintendent Cynthia Saunders in meeting with Ciber executives, who said they would fix all defects within two months.

It’s no easy task to transition from 20 years of paper-based operations to a highly complex software system, and the project had no shortage of problems, said Joe Blitzko, a member of the audit committee.

However, he said, the outcome would have been far worse without employees who worked with limited resources to meet vast demands.

“There’s not been hardly one thank you out there,” Blitzko said.

©2018 The Bradenton Herald (Bradenton, Fla.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.