The PeopleSoftTouch

PeopleSoft software has forced a Delaware manufacturer to cut paychecks to Mickey Mouse and let failing Wisconsin college students evade expulsion. Guess what software the San Francisco school district owns?

Part of the problem in San Francisco was the group that proposed and then led the project. Many of those at the highest levels of the project have quit or been fired or suspended, which makes it difficult to gauge exactly what happened on the district's end of the implementation. What is clear, however, is that the board approved the original $283,000 1995 contract for PeopleSoft human resources and payroll software -- as well as a subsequent $700,000 contract for PeopleSoft financial software -- at the urging of Coleman and Rojas. This is software that, Rojas and Coleman should have known, was designed with business -- not school districts -- in mind, and would have to be extensively tailored by consultants to become functional.

It is unclear how much Rojas and Coleman initially knew about PeopleSoft's deficiencies, but it is apparent the school district's computer system does almost nothing as well as advertised, and is especially deficient at the functions most specific to school districts. The system cannot, for instance, properly pay an English teacher who coaches basketball on the side (and thus gets paid from two different funds). It cannot communicate with the district's student information system -- a far less expensive, homemade system that also works poorly -- so changes in enrollment that should affect levels of state funding are not registered automatically. And its inability to store credentialing information has the district keeping some of its most important records in paper files.

Which is to say that the PeopleSoft system does little the district's old homemade-in-the-'70s system couldn't do. Only the old system was more reliable.

Peter Ferguson
The SFUSD's CFO, Cathi Vogel, answers PeopleSoft-related questions at the Nov. 14 school board meeting.
Anthony Pidgeon
The SFUSD's CFO, Cathi Vogel, answers PeopleSoft-related questions at the Nov. 14 school board meeting.

"What happens in the public sector sometimes is that administrators become cheerleaders for an organization, which lets the vendors, wittingly or unwittingly, put themselves into contractual situations that no rational person could believe," says Joe Moriarty of Claremont's Kerry Consulting Group, which investigates technology purchases for public-sector organizations.

And then there are the district employees working directly under Rojas and Coleman, who were aware of festering problems with Carrera's software installation plan from the moment it was drafted yet did little -- if anything -- to intervene, who routinely gave conflicting directions, who took vacations at key junctures of the project, and -- in the case of a district technology officer -- who used to work for Carrera Consulting itself.

There was more than adequate warning, early on, that the school district's PeopleSoft project was in trouble.

Staff correspondence shows that high-ranking school district officials knew Carrera Consulting's plan to install PeopleSoft software was flawed. It also shows that communication between the people who should have been in charge of the implementation was muddled at best. Documents and numerous interviews suggest it was never quite clear who, exactly, had overall authority over the implementation plan.

And then, as the PeopleSoft project was going nowhere, Rojas took the job as superintendent of Dallas schools, and Coleman and the chief technology officer from the San Francisco district soon followed, leaving a new team to deal with the Carrera/PeopleSoft debacle.

On March 11, 1998, Naomi Dorsch, an independent software consultant hired by the district to assist with the PeopleSoft installation, told the district's chief technology officer that Carrera's plan to install the software was far less detailed than standard, professional implementation plans.

In fact, it would not be approved by any consultants other than Carrera, she wrote, but "they are being paid to project manage. As long as they do their job properly and the district is not left lurching from one crisis to another, I say approve their plan with the conditions stated in the memo that I presented." Dorsch, who now works for PeopleSoft, also passed on her very conditional endorsement to Glenston Thompson, then the district's director of administrative and support services, who was responsible for implementation of the financial services portion of the software.

The district's budget director for the bulk of the implementation was Enrique Navas (who was demoted by new Superintendent Arlene Ackerman in August). According to Carrera's review of the SFUSD installation, difficulties with the budget director's office were the "most significant" reason for the district's current problems. These problems included repeated missed deadlines, vague directions, and a lack of technical support. The report also said Navas took a one-month vacation during a crucial testing period in the summer of 1998 without appointing someone to take his place.

Ruben Bohuchot was one of the first Carrera consultants on site at the district, personally invoicing more than $40,000 during the first few months of the project. In October 1997, he wrote a letter asking Coleman to authorize additional consulting help for the district. Less than a month later, he was hired as the district's chief technology officer.

Reached in Dallas, where he is the chief technology officer for the Dallas school district, Bohuchot says that although Coleman hired him away from Carrera because of his project management skills, he had no control over the PeopleSoft project at the SFUSD, which Thompson clumsily dominated. "By the time I understood the magnitude of the problems," he says, "it was fundamentally too late."

When asked about the e-mail he received from Dorsch expressing concerns about the original project plan before it was set in motion, the former technology director says he frequently brought concerns to Thompson, an accountant, but found himself ignored. Thompson, whose contract was recently terminated by Ackerman, could not be located for comment. The district's benefits office said he did not leave a forwarding address.

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