City schools OK extra $4 million for contract

Computer upgrade sees cost overruns

April 12, 2000|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

Baltimore school officials approved an additional $4 million for a computer contract last night while revising a proposed $856.7 million budget for next fiscal year that contains little new money for classroom reforms.

Without acknowledging mistakes in its handling of a contract with Information Control Systems of Baltimore, the school board put stricter controls on who decides how money is spent.

The board also more clearly defined the scope of the work in an 18-month contract with ICS that has ballooned from $5.2 million to $11.4 million.

Since voting to approve the pact last April, the board has been paying ICS -- without public discussion and without revising the contract -- to cover subcontracting expenses and the cost of a growing number of computer technicians.

Last night's was the first public discussion of the contract and the first revision.

Approval of the revised contract came with a caveat -- attached by board member Ed Brody -- that the additional money not be paid until an audit showed the ICS work was satisfactory.

Board member Sam Stringfield accepted that there would be cost overruns, but said, "ICS shouldn't be coming to us with any other surprises."

Under the contract, the school system isn't buying computers for classrooms, but is paying ICS to make sure there are computer programs to keep track of students, issue paychecks and make purchases without elaborate paperwork.

Schools chief Robert Booker is taking over management of the contract from his chief financial officer, Robert Reese Jr.

Reese has been a key player in the ICS contract. He gave the company permission to move into the basement of school administration headquarters on North Avenue in late March 1999, before the board had approved the contract.

The revised contract also calls for Booker to appoint a manager who will make decisions about staffing and spending for computer technology outside the ICS contract. For the past year, an ICS consultant has been the schools' "chief technology officer." In his dual roles as private consultant and public school official, Donald G. Hall was deciding matters of spending on school system technology and spending on the contract.

Hall has directed projects -- from creating a school Web site to upgrading old databases -- and billed the school system accordingly. Newly released documents show that ICS bills $146 an hour -- or more than $220,000 a year -- for the work of Hall, 63, an ex-Army colonel with his own computer business in northern Virginia.

Hall also brought on board his younger brother, Mike, and his son, Don Hall Jr. The proposed school budget revised yesterday is different in some key ways from the one proposed several weeks ago.

The system will receive $25.9 million in new state aid next year to reduce class sizes, give raises to teachers and fund programs that include summer school, all-day kindergarten and teacher recruitment.

While the additional money will help the school system make progress in the fourth year of its reform effort, it fell far short of the $49 million the board requested.

In addition, school officials failed to persuade Mayor Martin O'Malley to give the schools a $7 million increase next year. As a result, the system had to find ways to readjust the budget. It did so by making deep central office cuts, including the elimination of 89 administrative positions for a savings of more than $3.3 million.

Betty Morgan, chief academic officer, recommended moving the nine area executive officers into the North Avenue headquarters. She said she believed that the change would improve services to children as well as save $2.2 million.

In addition, the spending plan apparently calls for cutting 50 positions -- from clerical to professional staff. Because retirements and turnover among staff are high, the school system doesn't expect to have layoffs. Individuals may have to be "redeployed" to other jobs, Morgan said.

The board will vote April 25 on the proposed budget for the fiscal year, which begins July 1.

Sun staff writer JoAnna Daemmrich contributed to this article.

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