School computer pact retained

Lawmaker holds off severance of contract pending full audit

July 14, 2000|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

Amid a widening inquiry into a multimillion-dollar technology contract, Baltimore education officials came close to breaking ties with a local computer firm yesterday until an influential state lawmaker intervened.

State Del. Howard P. Rawlings acted at the last minute to keep Information Control Systems on the school job. The company's contract is being scrutinized by internal and outside auditors after The Sun reported its fees had doubled in a little over a year.

"My problem is that I find it incredible that a minority business firm that's been successful has been put in this position by the Sunpapers and bad management," Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat, said. It "should not be the victim of a high-profile study and ineptitude on the part of the Baltimore city schools."

School officials said they have not lost confidence in ICS, but announced yesterday they are holding up a $532,000 back payment for two more weeks until the outside audit is finished.

"We simply want to complete the audit and get the issues resolved," said board Vice Chairman C. William Struever. "In the meantime, we were not comfortable making additional payments."

The school board's decision this week to expand its investigation of the computer services - and to continue to withhold money - prompted a standoff with the contractor yesterday.

After meeting for more than an hour with ICS President Garland O. Williamson, school officials appeared ready to sever their ties and begin looking for another computer company to take over. The contract isn't for school computers but for consulting services to make sure there is technology to track students, issue paychecks and make purchases.

Short-term resolution

School officials called a news conference. But first, Baltimore's new schools chief, Carmen V. Russo, called city and state officials to inform them of the plan.

Rawlings, who played a key role in setting up a 1997 city-state school reform partnership, made clear that he opposed changing computer contractors. He said he told Russo, "That's a terrible idea," and urged her to find a way to continue to work with Williamson.

The result was that the school board promised to speedily finish its audit - and Williamson agreed to continue his services. He could not be reached yesterday.

One of ICS' subcontractors is Carnegie Morgan, a Baltimore-based company specializing in financial, energy planning and information technology services. Rawlings' son, Wendell, works for Carnegie Morgan's energy division and is in charge of a separate school project that is also under investigation.

School board audit

The school board hired auditors to look into the $12.3 million energy project after reports that two consultants - Carnegie Morgan and Columbia financial broker J. P. Grant - had received lucrative, no-bid deals. The schools' chief financial officer resigned, and the business manager was suspended for a month for their roles in awarding the consulting work.

Rawlings said he was unaware that ICS had employed Carnegie Morgan's technology group. "I don't know who his subcontractors are," he said, adding that his son's work is unrelated.

The delegate said he intervened because he believes ICS is "doing an outstanding job" in modernizing the school district's antiquated computer systems.

When it was hired for $5.2 million last year, ICS promised to deliver what the school system lacked: reliable computer systems. The company soon sold the district on extra services - and the costs ballooned to $11.3 million with little oversight from the school board.

Struever said the board "has no reason at this point to question the quality of work" and promised that the company would be quickly paid when the audit is completed.

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