Schools consultant got $600,000 for 18 months' work

City's CEO orders audit, asks prosecutor to review computer system contract

`I worked hard for every dime'

December 24, 2003|By Tanika White and Liz Bowie | Tanika White and Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

A private consultant hired to work on a new computer system for the Baltimore school district was paid more than $600,000 over 18 months, more than twice what the highest-paid city school official earned during the same period.

From January 2002 to July 2003, Annmarie L. Wells charged the school district $185 an hour to help implement the $16 million computer system. The project, designed to make the school system's management functions operate more efficiently, is five months behind schedule.

Schools CEO Bonnie S. Copeland, concerned by the expenditure, which occurred during the administration of her predecessor, ordered an internal audit and asked State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli's office to review the contract.

"Anytime there's a figure that high within a smaller scope of time, I just want to look into it," Copeland said. "No one in the school system makes that kind of money."

Copeland said in an interview this week that she is unsure whether the school board approved all $635,633 in fees and whether proper procedures were followed in awarding the contract.

Montanarelli confirmed yesterday that his office had been asked to review the contract but declined to discuss it further. "We're just getting into it," he said.

In an interview yesterday, Wells said that she was unaware of the investigation but that her contract was legal, ethical and fair.

"They can look, but they'll get absolutely nothing," Wells said. "I'm aboveground in everything that I do. I know the school system is facing financial difficulties, but I also worked hard for every dime that I billed. I don't know what anyone has to gain by pursuing me."

But top school officials - including the state schools superintendent and the city school board's chairwoman - said they have concerns about how one person earned so much money.

"I think with the severity of the deficit and the magnitude of the work that needs to be done on behalf of the students," Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said, "that this kind of behavior, if it violated ... procedures, should not be tolerated."

Wells was working on the implementation of the costly Human Resources Management System, a computer system Baltimore school officials bought to make their payroll, staffing and budgeting functions run more smoothly. She was among many consultants working to ensure a smooth transition once the new computer program was up and running.

Wells' association with the school system began more than two years ago when she worked for Spherion Inc., a consulting company the school system had hired to work on the computer system. Spherion was paid $54,296, but it is not clear how much of that was earned by Wells.

When the school system decided it needed to hire a consultant to help implement the new computer system, it sent out a request for proposals in August 2001.

Cut bid to $185 an hour

Wells said yesterday that she learned from an administrator in the information technology department that other companies were bidding for the implementation job. She said she decided to start a consulting company and bid on the project.

A. Wells Consulting Inc., which is operated out of Wells' home in Guilford, had the lowest rate among companies that bid - $185 an hour.

Wells indicated in an interview and in a recent letter to Copeland that she was told ahead of time by that same administrator what the three other companies were bidding on the project. With that knowledge, she was able to change her original rate of $200 an hour and underbid the other companies. The administrator identified by Wells could not be reached for comment.

"[The administrator said], `I don't think it would go at $200,'" Wells said. "So that's when I reduced it."

If true, that appears to violate school board rules for fair bidding of competitive contracts. But school officials said they don't know yet if there was any wrongdoing in the bidding process.

"If there is malicious or criminal intent then we have to deal with that appropriately," said school board chairwoman Patricia L. Welch. "But right now I don't know that."

On Jan. 8, 2002, the school board approved an $182,000 expenditure under a six-month contract with Wells. But before the six months were out, school officials came back to the board asking to extend the contract and pay her considerably more.

The school system, responding to requests for information from The Sun, supplied copies of internal documents seeking changes to the original contract that would pay Wells more than $635,000.

The school board approved the additional expenditures June 25, 2002, according to documents. That approval was given as part of a larger request that included $4.8 million for seven consulting firms. As a result, it might not have been clear to board members exactly how much Wells was being paid.

`That is a lot of money'

Welch said she does not recall whether the board received a detailed briefing before voting on the contract, but she said she is troubled by the expenditure.

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