Money pit

January 02, 2004

ANOTHER DEADLINE has been missed: On Jan. 1, the computer system built to modernize the Baltimore school district's business operations remained unfinished. At more than $16 million and counting, the expense is more than three times the starting estimate; nearly 5 years old, the project was originally an 18-month deal.

Building a better management system was supposed to save district leaders money, time and migraines: Had it been up and running sooner, it might have helped prevent the botched projections that doomed this year's school budget and led to the layoffs taking effect today. Instead, the incomplete project remains symbolic of the lack of fiscal accountability that plagued the school system after its break with city government in 1997.

With independence came responsibility for the district's record-keeping, including payroll, staffing and budgets. Some tasks were still being done by hand; school officials have long insisted they'd do a better job when the dream computer system was ready. Repeated delays and overruns have made that a sorry excuse.

Through three school chiefs and a rotating guard of school commissioners, the unchecked spending, revolving-door leadership and disregard for the effects of their missteps finally have hurt the kids: Cost overruns and poor planning now have contributed to a cumulative deficit that nearly has broken the school system's back, forcing decisions to increase class size, gut enrichment programs and curtail reforms.

Technology experts say the original $5.2 million was an underestimate, given the complexity of the project. It's not unusual for projects such as these to exceed budget, they say. But a threefold overrun? That's high - and when it's the price of bad management, that's extreme.

The original work would have to be rethought and re-engineered; the sorry state of the data on which workers would have to build the system only delayed the project more. Successive school boards bemoaned their plight and repeatedly approved the rising bills, but there weren't really consequences for the waste. Taxpayers were not given a clear picture of what needed to be fixed, how long it might take, and how much it might cost - if the school officials themselves even knew.

As Mayor Martin O'Malley has often complained, the district could have negotiated with the city for help using its old systems. The district also could have adopted systems in use by nearby county districts. Baltimore school leaders wanted their own.

Last month, new schools chief Bonnie S. Copeland dismissed the two managers who most recently oversaw the system's installation. She also asked the state prosecutor to investigate one of the project's six-figure contracts, to learn whether procurement rules have been followed.

That's a start. But until the district consistently practices better business sense, there's no computer system that money can buy that can fix what's wrong.

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