The Software That Wouldn't Die

Despite promises and deadlines, the S.F. school district still hasn't driven a stake through the heart of its disastrous PeopleSoft financial program

When we last left Sandy Rosen, in November, he was trying to explain the magnitude of the albatross the San Francisco Unified School District had installed in its computers to the Board of Education ("The PeopleSoft Touch," Nov. 22, 2000).

Rosen is a highly respected technology consultant at City Hall who had been hired by the school district to rescue it from a disastrous business decision. As Rosen reminded board members in that meeting (in much politer words), they had blown more than $5 million on a PeopleSoft software package designed to run every aspect of the district's business operations. Instead, the software mangled the district's employee and financial data so thoroughly that millions of dollars in consulting costs had still failed to fix it.

Rosen had been brought in for a last-ditch salvage attempt. As the district's chief financial officer, Cathi Vogel, explained at that same November meeting, Rosen and a team of consultants would work tirelessly to see if the $5 million (and counting) investment could be saved. To help cut any further losses, Rosen's team would work within a $450,000 spending cap and would make a firm recommendation by January on whether or not to scrap the software.

"This is like a never-ending story," board member Frank Chong said at the time. "We want some closure."

Well, it's now May, more than six months after that meeting and five months after the self-imposed deadline. So how close is the school district to "closure"? Apparently, it's nowhere in sight.

In fact, Rosen, the supposed PeopleSoft savior, quietly resigned from the project in February, citing differences with the district's management. Before he resigned, he did, in fact, make recommendations in January as he had promised. But they were hardly the cut-and-dried decisions the board was expecting to hear.

"There are a number of different ways to skin a cat," Rosen says from his City Hall office. "And mine was definitely more radical than the one they wanted to pursue."

Rosen resists leaking details, but his answer to a very straightforward question -- "Should the district keep PeopleSoft?" -- sounds a bit cryptic.

"It's not that simple," he says. "There are a number of issues with management that still need to be resolved. ... There really isn't any one answer to the situation that exists there."

That ambiguity, not surprisingly, frustrated board members weary of the process and the hemorrhaging costs. They blindly signed off on former Superintendent Bill Rojas' recommendation to buy the software six years ago, and had subsequently given millions of dollars to PeopleSoft-recommended consultants to install it, plus nearly $1 million more to PeopleSoft to fix what the company's own recommended installers had botched.

"We were supposed to get a drop-dead recommendation," says Board of Education President Jill Wynns. "Instead, we got a "Well, we're continuing the analysis' type of thing." But despite being frustrated by the lack of a clear directive from Rosen, school administrators apparently responded to his decision to leave with some begging and pleading.

"There was some attempt to get him to stay," Wynns says.

Nevertheless, the board president paints a picture that seems a bit brighter than the departed software consultant's. She says that some, if not all, of the software can "be made to be workable," and that some of it is actually working better already.

But not all of it.

Screaming headlines in the San Francisco Chronicle last week detailed how $15 million in state bond money earmarked for school construction was missing from San Francisco schools. The district's new administration (the audit at the core of the story looked at bond money awarded between June 1996 and June 2000; Superintendent Arlene Ackerman arrived in July) also learned, in February, that some voter-approved bond money was being used on salaries and benefits.

Care to venture a guess where some of that confusion stems from?

"We're not saying the bond money is lost in the ether," says Wynns, who calls the Chronicle stories "very biased and not very informative." "It's just that [with this PeopleSoft computer system], it can't be tracked. And we need to fix it. ... It's not that we think we don't know where the money is. But we don't think we can track all of the hundreds of thousands of transactions that the district is involved in right now."

 
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