School Board Buys Computer

Purchase Of $2 Million Mainframe Defies County's Wishes

April 15, 1992|By Monica Norton | Monica Norton,Staff writer

The Board of Education has purchased and plans to install a new mainframe computer over the four-day Easter holiday, despite objections from county government officials not yet convinced the computer is necessary.

County officials are waiting for the results of a feasibility study into whether one computer -- which they already own -- would be enough for both the county and the school system. Until that report is in, they are withholding approval of the purchase.

School officials, however, insist there is no way one computer would be sufficient. And besides, they argue, they don't need the county's approval.

"Yes, (the purchase of the mainframe) is a problem,"said county Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Walter Chitwood. "I don't have a definitive answer yet as to what we'll do. I can tellyou we're not over here talking about legal action."

The school board voted April 1 to buy its own computer because its main computer is on the verge of overload, board members said.

William Scott, assistant superintendent for administration, said school employees spend about 50 hours every two weeks processing paychecks for about 8,000people, including school substitutes. With the new mainframe computer, Scott said, processing time should be cut by at least two-thirds.

The school board's vote to purchase its own computer did not go over well with county government. Chief Administration Officer Dennis Parkinson had said he would recommend the County Council not fund the purchase.

Now that the school system has gone ahead and purchased the mainframe computer, Chitwood said he is not clear on how the school system plans to pay for it.

The computer will cost $2 million at the end of a five-year lease agreement.

School board member Thomas Twombly said the school system has the money in its computer budget. But Chitwood countered that that money was designated for the purchase of other computers, not a mainframe.

It is unclear what will happen now that the school system has gone ahead and purchased its computer. But county officials appear to be awaiting the outcome of a feasibility study on merging the school system, community college and county government onto one computer system.

School officials, however, are questioning the ethics of that study. Because it is being conducted by IBM, which could end up selling the computer equipment called for in the study, board members have raised the specter of conflict of interest.

Twombly said the feasibility study is unnecessary,since a study on the merits of merging the three systems already hasbeen done.

Retired Naval Academy Director of Computing James Mossconcluded in a feasibility study last fall that the school board should have its own computer, Twombly said.

"The county did not like the answer," Twombly said. "They think they can save money with consolidation. But what happens if IBM comes back and says (the school system) should have its own computer? Are they going to throw out that report, too, and do another feasibility study? We can't afford to keepwaiting."

But county government officials said the Moss report did not exclude the need for additional study on merging the school system, community college county government into one computer.

If theproposed merging of the systems were to go through, Twombly said, hedoes not believe the school system would fare well.

"We will probably overload the system in a short amount of time," he said. "The county would have first priority. The community college would come second because its smaller.

"In Frederick County when they consolidated, the school system was at the low point of the totem pole. (Frederick's school system) is basically told by the county when it can and cannot use the computer," Twombly said.

And, while IBM is expected to have completed its feasibility study by the end of the month, Twombly said he has doubts.

"We've been hanging on by our fingertips, especially in reference to payroll," Twombly said. "We've had people working overtime to get payroll done on time. I don't believe (IBM) can complete a study by the end of April. And we can't wait any longer.

"We've actually probably waited too long. We're on borrowed time. We've been very, very lucky. One day we're not going to be that lucky."

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