TUSD to dump software system

District spent $10 million, years trying to make it work
2013-07-06T00:00:00Z 2014-07-02T08:48:45Z TUSD to dump software systemAlexis Huicochea Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
July 06, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Calling the purchase of $10 million software a "failed experiment," the Tucson Unified School District is ready to dump the system after years of unsuccessfully trying to implement it.

When it was purchased in 2009, the Lawson software system was billed as the solution to the district's error-prone, paper-driven systems in human resources, payroll and benefits department. Last week, however, the TUSD Governing Board was told it is not the best option for Tucson's largest school district.

District officials now propose reverting to the software system that was in place before, but an upgraded version that will cost $19.1 million over the next decade.

The old system - PeopleSoft, which was installed in 1999 - was previously described as being unusable because it had been modified too much and was years behind in upgrades.

"I sat here through hours of presentations about the wonders of Lawson … so for me it's a little frustrating," said Governing Board President Adelita Grijalva. "It was a significant amount of money. … It's frustrating that we're going back to a system that most people said they didn't like."

When it was brought before the Governing Board, Lawson was touted as being more accurate, which would have saved the district money. However, numerous missteps by past leadership rendered the software a bad fit for TUSD.

Key steps that should have been conducted even before the software was purchased were skipped, said TUSD Chief Financial Officer Yousef Awwad.

The most important missed step was a needs assessment to determine what the district wants out of a software system. Secondary to that was streamlining inefficient business practices.

There were also mistakes made in the district's attempt to implement the program, most specifically taking the "big bang approach" of implementing the whole system at once, which did not work because of a thin staff that was also expected to perform daily duties at the same time.

"It did not yield good results," Awwad said, noting overworked employees and high turnover rates.

The money spent on Lawson cannot be recouped, but the system is being used in the finance, procurement and asset-management departments. Even if the district had decided to resume implementation of Lawson in the other departments, there would have been a cost associated with keeping it - $19.6 million over the next 10 years in terms of ownership, maintenance and upgrades.

The district's recently retired superintendent, John Pedicone, identified the situation as a "systems issue."

"This situation, as far as I'm concerned, is a classic example of the philosophy that when things go bad, a program of some kind will come in and solve it," Pedicone said. "Just as is the case with achievement, it takes hard work, rolling up your sleeves and having a system that approaches exactly what you're after.

"This is a great example of ... trying to make software do something that business practice couldn't do. It was a failed experiment."

Though Pedicone and much of his cabinet were not in office when the software was selected, he hoped his work over the last 2 1/2 years has established the importance of addressing problems by first identifying the root cause, fixing the system and then looking at programs and strategies.

"Unfortunately, exactly the frustration you've experienced is what the community has a legitimate right to feel about this," Pedicone said, addressing Grijalva's concerns.

He noted that the original software TUSD is going back to, PeopleSoft, is actually rated significantly higher than Lawson but said Lawson is an effective system nonetheless.

In investigating the software issue, TUSD's staff found many upgrades for PeopleSoft were purchased but never used, likely because employees did not want to veer from the status quo, and the cost associated with configuring the module wasn't budgeted for, Pedicone said.

Some of those modules are now being utilized and helping the district to become more efficient.

The purchase of the software upgrade will come back to the Governing Board for approval once TUSD's new Superintendent, H.T. Sanchez, has been given time to familiarize himself with the situation.

On StarNet: Find more TUSD news and resources at azstarnet.com/education

Contact reporter Alexis Huicochea at ahuicochea@azstarnet.com or 573-4175. On Twitter @AlexisHuicochea

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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