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Programmed For Failure

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Mention computers to Cleveland school officials and you are likely to get an immediate, telling response.

Some roll their eyes or shake their heads, displaying incredulity and exasperation. Others grin, cringe, or seem to bristle.

Inajo T. Davis, a lawyer for the district, points to a wall of her office where she has hung a collection of biting editorial cartoons from local newspapers, all lampooning the district's handling of computer purchases. William E. Aldridge, the district's treasurer, draws attention to a closet full of computer-related contracts, purchase orders, and receipts, most documenting little more than the loss of millions of dollars.

Computers are a sore subject here, for when it comes to purchasing them, the entire Cleveland school system has seemed programmed for failure.

What separates this district's experience from others', though, may be less the amount of the waste than the fact that officials have chosen to openly confront the shortcomings and publicly discuss the problems.

Several school systems, and some states, recently have come under fire for mishandling their investments in computers for administration or instruction.

Like Cleveland, they appear to be relying on profit-seeking vendors, self-serving bureaucrats, and fickle politicians to determine what they buy, rather than making informed decisions based on actual needs and costs.

Like Cleveland, they often end up with equipment that is costly, inappropriate, and obsolete.

One Cleveland school board member, James Lumsden Jr., demonstrates his training as a clergyman as he fervently sermonizes about how the forces of greed rendered his district the victim of "a high-tech shell game.''

Another board member, Susan M. Leonard, grows angry as she recalls how she happened to lift the shells and bring the district's computer problems to light.

In January 1992, newly elected members of the board were attending their first meeting. Among them was Leonard, who had run on a reform slate pledging to change how the district did business.

Only minutes after being sworn in, the board was asked to approve one of the largest computer purchases proposed by the district in years.

Leonard recalls that central-office administrators already had told her the district needed to purchase the computer hardware, from Digital Equipment Corporation, to keep up with its information-processing demands.

They had not, however, told her the equipment would cost a total of $4.2 million, although a trade-in allowance and discount brought the actual amount down to $2.3 million.

Uneasy about rubber-stamping such a large expenditure, Leonard persuaded the board to delay its decision until a committee of parents, administrators, and civic leaders could evaluate the district's computer needs.

Over the next several weeks, she says, officials in the district's Management Information and Evaluation Systems office repeatedly told board members that delaying the purchase was a big mistake. They warned that the district's administrative computers were quickly becoming overwhelmed, were already unable to do some necessary tasks, and might not be able to plan bus routes and make student assignments for the coming school year.

Leonard resented being put under such pressure. "We felt that our children were being held hostage,'' she recalls.

Then, one day, an M.I.E.S. staff member let slip something that enraged Leonard: The people in his office considered the computer purchase a "done deal'' for which board approval was a mere formality.

Much of the equipment, he revealed, already had been delivered to district schools.

By the board's March 26 meeting, Leonard was "chomping at the bit'' to have district business officers fired.

The minutes of the meeting record a tense exchange in which Leonard publicly grilled Warren D. Riebe, the district's chief of management, budget, and systems, and W. Harrison Dillard, the chief of its budget department. She demanded to know how schools had come to possess more than $1 million worth of computer equipment without board authorization.

When Riebe said the matter had not been brought to his attention until that morning, Leonard noted that 105 schools had begun receiving the equipment before Christmas.

When Riebe said he understood the equipment had not been unpacked, Leonard brandished photographs showing equipment that had already been taken out of its cartons.

Pointing to the resolution before them to authorize the computer deal, Gary Kucinich, another board member, declared, "Now we find out why they wanted it passed so badly.''

"Something is definitely wrong,'' Lumsden said. "Something stinks in this.''

The board called for a special state audit of the M.I.E.S. department and undertook other efforts to examine its computer operations. District officials, citizens' committees, and local reporters joined in the task.

The intensive scrutiny resulted in a number of critical reports over the course of the next year.

Each focused on different aspects of the district's operations. Nevertheless, they reached one common conclusion: The district fell as a result of its divisions.

The seeds of the fatal split were sowed in the mid-1980's, when the district moved to upgrade its administrative computers to better handle its rapidly growing data-processing needs. Lacking a comprehensive technology plan, the school board relied on those running its administrative computers--primarily International Business Machines Corporation equipment operating on an I.B.M. platform--to tell it how to proceed.

A task force on the district's computer operations concluded that adequately upgrading the I.B.M. platform would require a complete overhaul of both the computer system and the district division charged with running it. Intimidated by the task and afraid of ruffling feathers, district leaders instead set up a separate administrative computer system, from the Digital Equipment Corporation, to handle additional data-processing needs.

"Technology people tend to build their own empires,'' observes Richard Stedry, a veteran administrator who has been brought in to overhaul the district's business operations.

The people running Cleveland's two computer systems were no exception to the rule, Stedry adds. As time went on, they came to be known as "the I.B.M. side'' and "the DEC side,'' which battled each other for resources and power.

In theory, the two sides were to communicate and divide up tasks, with the DEC system handling attendance records and other student data and the I.B.M. system managing administration and transportation. In practice, the two sides have remained fiercely independent and have overlapped in data and functions.

Even today, "some people are I.B.M. people, and some people are Digital people,'' Stedry says.

Trying to get the two sides to work together has been like trying to merge two hostile companies, he suggests. Their rivalry continues to obstruct the district's efforts to develop a comprehensive technology plan.

As the two sides within the central office struggled over administrative computers, the district's schools were left to cope with the revolution in instructional technology on their own.

As a result, most of the district's purchasing of instructional computers was done on a fragmented, school-by-school basis.

Such site-based purchasing practices are not uncommon. A recent market analysis by Quality Education Data, a Denver-based firm, found that teachers had the final say in instructional-technology purchases in 23 percent of the districts surveyed.

Such an approach has benefits, the most obvious being that the people buying the technology are its end users, who generally have a better idea of what they want and need.

But Cleveland's schools appeared to suffer for lack of centralized control or guidance. In making their purchases independently, individual schools generally spent a lot more than they would have if they had banded together and purchased in volume. They also tended to give little thought to such questions as whether their computers could later be networked.

Corporate sponsors of individual schools often donated most of the schools' instructional hardware and software, typically without consulting district officials or other donors. Because they varied in generosity, the donations sometimes worsened inequities among schools.

Regardless of who was buying instructional computers, the classrooms receiving them often got too little or too much.

Andrew J. Balazs Jr., the district's interim director of technology services, says he knows of several schools that acquired instructional computers to do certain tasks and were later disappointed to discover they could not do more. Some computers proved incapable of adapting to new technological developments, such as video equipment that plugs into instructional hardware, while others had memories that proved too small to handle the demands subsequently placed on them.

At the other extreme were schools that acquired computers with sophisticated mathematical capabilities for classrooms that only needed word processors, or that supplied a classroom with several computers when just one with an attached projector would have sufficed.

Cleveland's schools are hardly unique in making such mistakes. Michael F. Sullivan, the executive director of the Agency for Instructional Technology, a nonprofit organization that develops and distributes instructional materials, estimates that only one school in 10 does a reasonably good job of installing instructional computers.

"There is no model--at least there is no commonly distributed model--which everyone can look at and say this is what needs to be done,'' Sullivan says. "Very seldom is the decision made as part of an overall plan for improving the instructional program.''

Even when Cleveland purchased the right computers, it may not have held on to them.

As she was snooping around in early 1992, Susan Leonard walked into a district storage facility and stumbled on more than $1 million worth of new administrative computer equipment that had been sitting there for a year, largely forgotten and depreciating in value while still in the box.

The discovery prompted Donella Baker, an internal auditor, to include computers in an ongoing examination of how the district keeps track of its fixed assets. Her report, issued the following August, said a "substantial amount'' of district computer equipment had never been tagged or assigned an identification number. "There are entire computer labs where none of the equipment has been inventoried,'' the report charged.

Some computers and related equipment had been stolen, but no incident reports were filed because the schools had no records of serial numbers, the audit said.

Even when computer equipment was tagged, the numbers often failed to be incorporated into district records, leaving it difficult to track and manage. The smaller components of computer systems were especially vulnerable to being "lost'' this way.

Adding to the confusion was the fact that the district used several different software packages to track its assets and kept separate asset listings for each of several district departments, including the M.I.E.S. office.

Meanwhile, many principals were casual about letting teachers and parents take computers home, often out of the belief the equipment could not be stored in their schools securely.

Because the district had not performed a physical inventory of its fixed assets in a decade, it had no way of knowing whether computer equipment was being used or handled properly, or even still existed. In visiting schools, the auditor frequently found "old, obsolete equipment that is not being utilized and has not been sold or scrapped.''

During a recent visit to Collinwood Senior High School on Cleveland's East Side, for example, several old terminals sat gathering dust in the office of Robert S. Jones, the chairman of the school's computer-science department.

When Frank J. Huml took over as superintendent in May 1990, the school system clearly seemed to be falling behind in its effort to keep up with technology and the growing demands for information that were being placed on it.

The district's administration was using "antiquated'' data-collection practices and processing "one piece of paper on top of another,'' says Huml, who retired a year ago.

"When incidents occurred in a school building, often it was two days before we got any information,'' Huml recalls, echoing the complaints of other superintendents around the country who are coping with outdated management practices. (See Education Week, Oct. 20, 1993.)

The district, meanwhile, was under pressure to provide new student data to the Ohio education department to help it monitor education reform. Cleveland also needed to improve the collection of data relating to court-ordered school desegregation.

Huml put a great deal of pressure on his subordinates to improve the central office's computer operations.

Their response--hardly surprising to observers of bureaucracy--often was aimed less at critically examining their efforts than at expanding their powers.

In hindsight, few of the officials involved in overhauling the district's computer operations were well suited for the task.

In addition to coping with the problems that can plague all bureaucracies--such as a lack of accountability or weak links in the chain of communication--most were operating in an information vacuum when it came to making computer-related decisions. More sheep than shepherds, they relied on someone else to tell them what they were doing.

The school board, unwilling or unable to intervene in computer operations, accepted the recommendations of district administrators. But the administrators themselves appeared to be winging it much of the time.

"Most people who are in my position are generalists and have one or two areas of expertise. Nine times out of 10, that area of expertise is not in technology,'' observes Stedry, who admits to having a limited knowledge of computers.

"You are caught,'' he says, "in a position of relying on somebody to help you through a process of writing specifications and going through bids.''

In Cleveland, it turned out, that "somebody'' usually was a computer salesman.

Cleveland was hardly alone in having trouble keeping up with the computer revolution. Nor was it unique in relying on vendors to help it find its way.

Around the nation, district and state officials have come under fire for bungling computer purchases or maintaining cozy relationships with their vendors.

In Los Angeles, for example, a county auditor has alleged that senior staff members in the Los Angeles County Office of Education overstated the need to buy an $8.6 million computer system and deliberately gave misleading data to the county school board to make their case.

In New Mexico, Raymond G. Sanchez, the Speaker of the State House of Representatives and the chief sponsor of legislation appropriating $3.5 million for school computers, has been accused of deliberately fashioning the bill to steer business to a computer distributor that once retained him as its lawyer. But Sanchez calls the accusation "patently absurd'' and says the controversial wording in the legislation was added to the measure after it left his hands.

In Chicago, one of Ted D. Kimbrough's last acts as school superintendent was to strip his top administrator of all duties and ask the Federal Bureau of Investigation to probe the district's computer operations.

A series of articles in the Chicago Sun-Times last spring depicted the district's computer operations as plagued by chaotic bookkeeping and lax oversight, with officials unable to track how much they had spent on computers or paid their vendors. Among other problems, auditors discovered that the district last year spent twice the $15 million allocated for running the central-office computer system. The articles also charged that the school system had authorized $163 million in no-bid computer contracts in the five years before the practice was made legal in 1992.

Chicago's controversy has spread to individual schools, which were given more autonomy over purchases as the district decentralized. The Sun-Times reported that at least 100 Chicago principals, teachers, and central-office administrators took out-of-town trips paid for by computer vendors in 1991 and 1992.

In one instance, 14 principals received a three-day, all-expenses-paid trip to California, after which nine agreed to buy a total of $600,000 in equipment from the sponsoring company. Several of the principals have argued that they need to make such trips to educate themselves about computers because the decentralized district no longer provides them enough guidance.

Richard Stedry, William Aldridge, and others in charge of cleaning up the mess in Cleveland say that in working with other districts they often encounter computer vendors who have tried to manipulate the political process. The vendors' tactics have included pressuring officials, publicly challenging deals made with their competitors, working to get members of the public to pressure the board to buy their products, and donating equipment in order to generate a positive public image.

But while it was not alone in placing trust in computer vendors, the Cleveland system seems to have relied on them to an unusual degree.

"I have never seen a situation like Cleveland where you had so much vendor-driven equipment purchasing,'' says Aldridge, a certified public accountant who audited several other districts before becoming the treasurer of the Cleveland system.

One DEC employee had access to the district's electronic-mail system, where he could read messages not intended for him; he also had his own office in the district's central-administration building. The Cleveland school system was his only account.

The influence of computer vendors on the district was obscured--"intentionally obscured,'' board member Lumsden maintains--by the fact that most of their representatives called themselves consultants and acted in that role. The district paid the vendors to supply them with consultants to help with tasks its own employees could not handle.

The complex nature of computers--which use technology too sophisticated for most people to understand--meant that district officials, in making purchases, were not always sure what they wanted, much less what they were getting. Rather than developing specifications, administrators often told the "consultants'' what they wanted their computers to be able to do. The consultants then made recommendations about how to achieve those goals, and the administrators "parroted that to the board,'' Leonard says.

"What you had,'' Aldridge says, "was consultants making management decisions that our district personnel should have made.''

Not surprisingly, the consultants tended to recommend that the district purchase equipment from their employers. They also were likely to suggest that the district continue using their services.

Over a five-year period, district expenditures on the consultants amounted to $17 million, which was two or three times as much as it would have paid its own employees for the same work.

"Every time the board would try to say we did not want any more consultants working for the district, we were told by our employees that was not possible, that everything would come to a standstill,'' Leonard says.

"Finally we said, 'Let it come to a standstill,' and it didn't,'' she remarks.

In almost all of its computer-related transactions, the M.I.E.S. department seemed to go out of its way to accommodate vendors, even if it meant neglecting the district's interests or violating its policies.

The state audit, released in December 1992, found evidence of duplicate and undocumented payments, as well as payments that had been "walked through'' the system in violation of district rules. The state auditors also uncovered cases in which district personnel had reimbursed consultants for undocumented travel and expenses or paid consultants for hours they either had not worked or had spent in district-funded training programs.

In several cases, district employees failed to get requisitions approved or made purchases without soliciting competitive bids, entering into written agreements, or seeking school board authorization, as required.

When vendors did sign formal agreements with the district, they typically used contracts that they had written to their own advantage, with limitations on their warranties and liabilities, according to Davis, who recently took over as the district's lawyer in charge of business-related matters.

Some contracts, she notes, committed the district to paying a sales tax, even though it was exempt under state law.

In many cases, the district did not use contracts, but instead authorized transactions through vaguely worded resolutions not grounded in any written agreement. Although the resolutions committed the district to purchases, they could not be used to hold vendors accountable for their end of a deal. Some bound the district to buy equipment that was obsolete or had warranties and maintenance agreements that had expired. Others reaffirmed and extended agreements that did not exist, Davis says.

Many of the district's agreements with vendors were extended or broadened in such a way that "all of the projects ran together,'' Aldridge says, adding, "You couldn't distinguish what they were billing us for.''

After racking up $6 million in questionable transactions with at least eight companies, the district wound up acquiring technology it either did not need or would have been better off without.

One example was a software package provided by DEC at virtually no cost. The software proved a valuable tool, enabling district personnel to use the company's hardware for word processing and electronic mail. It also proved to be an expensive gift, however, since the new software gobbled up a huge chunk of computer memory and forced the purchase of new hardware for memory storage.

"The district used that package because it was free,'' says Balazs, the interim head of technology services. "There wasn't any data to suggest that they would have to add hardware at a future time.''

In other cases, Stedry says, the district bought software that did not precisely meet its needs and could not easily be modified to do so. Such was the case when administrators bungled the purchase and implementation of a new payroll system.

The officials thought the new system would enable them to maintain "exception based'' records, which, for example, would require entry of data when an employee was absent, but not when the employee was on the job. Such a system requires up to 75 percent less data entry and can be operated by fewer people.

Their hopes for the new system did not pan out, however. At the urging of the payroll department, the system was modified for "positive'' reporting, which requires that data be entered for each employee with every pay cycle. As a result, costs for data entry rose rather than fell.

A review panel established by the school board released a report in August 1992 that said Cleveland was spending about 2 times as much as comparably sized districts on computers for tracking student data. The district's 1992 budget for that purpose was $10 million, which did not include any funds for new equipment.

The state audit was broader and more critical. It concluded that the district had mishandled more than $6 million in spending on administrative computers over three years.

The district's schools, meanwhile, were frequently making the serious mistake of buying computers without budgeting for maintenance and insurance.

"You need to have maintenance, but the realities of life are such that people have so little money to begin with, they tend to buy just the hardware,'' says William J. Bauer, who supervises math instruction for the district.

Often, he says, schools were lulled by the fact that the equipment came with a warranty, even though they must have known that the warranties would eventually expire. Schools also failed to consider that, by collaborating in buying equipment, they could jointly enter into cost-effective long-term maintenance agreements.

Empire Computech Center, a magnet elementary school, is typical of many Cleveland schools. It relies on a largely self-taught technology specialist, who, as he says, will "get out the old screwdriver and play around'' when a computer goes on the blink.

"There is significant waste involved if you buy equipment and can't maintain it,'' says Balazs, who notes that very small problems can result in "complete loss of your machine.''

When the district's central office recently called on schools to turn in their unused computer hardware, it received some equipment that had been put in storage for want of a new part that was inexpensive and easy to install.

Because most of the district's instructional computers are not insured, once equipment is stolen, it's a total loss. To minimize such losses, the district has tight security requirements for computers, often asking schools to install new locks and alarms and prohibiting them from placing the equipment in rooms that can be entered through a window. Most computer laboratories sit behind locked doors and often can only be entered with a key even during school hours. The situation doesn't encourage use.

Despite all of these problems and obstacles, the district does have some bright spots in the use of instructional computers. One is the Learning Logic laboratory at Collinwood High, where 30 networked, state-of-the-art computers donated by General Electric help students master algebra at their own pace.

The machines guide students through lessons, print out and check their homework assignments, and administer tests. During a recent visit, the room was full of eager-looking students who held their arms up in triumph, drawing applause from their peers, as they tested out of a given level.

Such examples are rare, however, and only serve to underscore the problems faced by most schools, where instructional computers are ineffective, obsolete, unusable, or nonexistent.

In most Cleveland schools, access to instructional computers continues to be regarded "as a bonus, as a reward for kids,'' board member Leonard observes.

Looking back on his tenure as superintendent, Huml concedes that "there were problems in the business office.''

Nevertheless, he insists that the district's computer operations improved significantly during his watch, and that he did the right thing in entrusting them to Paul B. Clark, whom he named as the director of the M.I.E.S. department.

Clark, now a professor of management-information systems at South Carolina State University, maintains that there was nothing wrong or unusual about the department's actions or its reliance on vendors in trying to keep up with rapidly changing computer technology.

"Everyone in this industry relies on the vendors for information,'' Clark says. "This is not like going to K-Mart and buying a pair of black socks.''

Because the technology he was working with was so complex, Clark recalls, it was difficult for him to justify his actions to the school board without being misunderstood. "You can't sum up what is going on with technology to a layperson in a few words,'' he says.

But rather than taking the word of those who were in charge, the board has tried on its own to piece together what happened in the management-information-systems operation.

"You knew, if you asked any computer questions, you were going to be lied to,'' Leonard charges.

Most of the officials who were in office in January 1992 were let go over the course of the next year, as soon as their contracts expired.

Ray Durban, an information-systems specialist who worked closely with Leonard in uncovering many of the district's computer woes, now accuses her of publicly challenging the administrators involved for the sake of putting on "a political show'' to discredit them and her predecessors on the board.

The board, he notes, finally agreed to the DEC purchase that had been put before it in January 1992.

The district has provided copies of the paperwork generated by the M.I.E.S. department to the F.B.I., but has largely given up hope of recovering its money or proving any wrongdoing. The school board has sought to recover only about $13,000 in payments that the state audit showed clearly should not have been made, generally because they went for goods and services for which the district already had paid.

The state audit found another $5.9 million in payments that were improperly documented or otherwise violated district policy. But, lacking evidence that it did not receive the goods and services paid for, the board has decided to absorb the loss. The board also had to give up on $97,700 in district expenditures that exceeded appropriations, in violation of state law.

Currently, the school system is attempting to reorganize its computer operations to avoid making the same mistakes.

So far, Aldridge concedes, most of the changes made have been "to put out fires.''

In the long run, Stedry says, the district intends to develop a comprehensive technology plan, overhaul its management practices, restructure and streamline its computer operations, and establish a manager of educational technology who will oversee instructional-computer purchases.

The district also has been taking steps to insure that, in the future, computer vendors sign district-written contracts that incorporate precise specifications, quality assurances, and timelines.

The district is also attempting to switch to more generic hardware and software, so that it will not be dependent on specific platforms or vendors but can solicit bids and go with the best deal.

The district also is seeking to centralize and consolidate the purchase, insurance, maintenance, and repair of instructional computers in a way that will insure that computers can be networked, that no hardware or software is lost or goes to waste, and that classrooms get and keep equipment that works and meets their needs.

Leonard says she is confident things are improving. She adds, however, that she plans to keep a tight rein on the district's computer operations.

"My antenna has been raised so long,'' she says, "I am just not willing to pull it back down.''

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