Official defends overrun costs

City school system approved all claims for computer pact, he says

March 30, 2000|By Liz Bowie and JoAnna Daemmrich | Liz Bowie and JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

Baltimore school officials gave their full approval to $2.2 million in cost overruns on a computer contract to upgrade the city schools' antiquated recordkeeping systems, Garland O. Williamson, president of Information Control Systems Inc., said yesterday.

Williamson defended his company's record, saying he didn't do any additional work that wasn't asked for, and that he didn't charge the school system more than the going rate.

"I want you to say this contractor -- he did it right, he did it on time and he did what his customer asked," Williamson said in an interview yesterday.

Information Control Systems (ICS) was hired last March on a $5.2 million, 18-month contract, but within eight months the company had spent the money and was asking for more. By the end of January, the contract had escalated to $7.4 million, and the school system is being billed $744,000 a month to cover additional computer services.

Last night, at a meeting of the school board, schools chief Robert Booker said he is negotiating revisions of the contract. He said he would appoint a committee of outside auditors and technology experts to review future technology costs.

School officials said they might have to cut administrative costs and staff in the cash-strapped system because the city says it will not provide an additional $7 million to balance next year's budget. In comments about ICS, Booker said the company had produced a "state of the art" system for keeping track of student records.

"Today, the Baltimore city public school system has the best information technology capability it has ever had," he said.

School officials had approved the escalating costs -- without public discussion or revising the contract -- to cover subcontractors and computer technicians on temporary visas whose work is billed at rates ranging from $65 to $148 an hour.

Among the subcontractors are so-called body shops that bring in foreign workers on short-term visas. One subcontractor, NuSource, is headed by Lalit H. Gadhia, a once prominent Maryland Democratic fund-raiser who was convicted in a campaign finance scandal.

Williamson said he used NuSource because it promised to provide workers at a moment's notice.

He said there is such a shortage of qualified technology workers in America that it would have been difficult to find the staff needed without using the subcontractors. He denied allegations that he has trained workers at school system expense.

ICS was hired to oversee the work of two subcontractors trying to upgrade management systems that would allow the schools to pay its bills, cut paychecks and accurately keep track of its students. ICS also readied the system for 2000, trained personnel and ran the information technology office, among other tasks.

Williamson's company bid on the contract in December 1998, and on March 15, 1999, he said, Roger Reese, the system's chief financial officer, called to say he would recommend ICS for the job.

Later that day, Williamson said, Reese gave him the keys to the technology office and a letter saying Booker and the school board had given permission for him to begin work. The terms of the contract were to be worked out later, Williamson said.

Fifteen days after giving Information Control Systems the go-ahead, Reese recommended that the school board choose ICS as the contractor and sought permission to begin contract negotiations, according to minutes of the board meeting of March 30, 1999.

The minutes show that board member Edward J. Brody asked, "So the authority that you're asking us for is just to begin the negotiation process?"

Reese replied: "That is correct. Not awarding a contract."

The next month, the board approved the $5.2 million deal, according to minutes of the board meeting of April 20.

Williamson said he was concerned from the beginning that there was little time to accomplish all the work before 2000.

As they went to work, he said, "We started finding all kinds of issues. We went back and started reporting all these issues." At every step, ICS sought and got permission to do the work, he said.

Williamson said his intentions in regards to the contract were honest. "I am just a poor boy from East Baltimore," he said. "I put my heart and soul into this because this is my hometown. This school system educated me, my friends, my family. Yes, I had my heart on my sleeve when I took this contract."

Also yesterday, the school system contended that its specially called Dec. 28 meeting on the ICS contract extension was public. The board produced a single sheet of typed minutes from the meeting. Board staff members had previously said they were unaware of the meeting. Minutes were not taken as usual by a court reporter, and the meeting was not on the regular schedule. The notice was posted in the board office on the fourth floor.

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