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Community colleges’ computer system costs mount, schedule delayed

UPDATED: Wed., June 14, 2017, 12:04 a.m.

Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, questions state Community College Board officials over problems with the ctcLink system at schools in Spokane and Tacoma during a special joint committee hearing on Tuesday, June 13, 2017, in Olympia. (Jim Camden / The Spokesman-Review)
Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, questions state Community College Board officials over problems with the ctcLink system at schools in Spokane and Tacoma during a special joint committee hearing on Tuesday, June 13, 2017, in Olympia. (Jim Camden / The Spokesman-Review)

OLYMPIA – Bankruptcy by the contractor and a lawsuit against the state have added to the delays of getting a much-troubled $100 million computer system operating properly for Washington community colleges, a special Senate hearing was told Tuesday.

Problems with the new system, ctcLink, could keep the Community Colleges of Spokane from completing the necessary year-end accounting the federal government requires for schools that receive financial aid, almost two years after those schools began using the system, members of three Senate committees were told in an unusual joint meeting.

The system could be $15 million over its original budget by the time it’s installed in all 34 community colleges in the state. That could rise, depending on costs of the bankruptcy and lawsuit.

Ciber, Inc., a Colorado-based company that won the contract to install ctcLink, filed for bankruptcy on April 10. Eleven days later, it sued Washington state and the community colleges for breach of contract for withholding payments for ctcLink. On May 19, some of Ciber’s North American assets were bought by another company as part of the bankruptcy, but it refused to buy the ctcLink contract.

The contract and the lawsuit remain part of the ongoing bankruptcy proceedings, creating “a bit of a cloud over reassigning the work and the contract,” said Dave Stolier, a senior assistant state attorney general. The state would like to reassign the work Ciber was doing and hire some of its employees who were thrown out of work by the bankruptcy.

“We have a potential fight over those things,” Stolier said.

Since the system went online in August 2015 in Spokane and Tacoma, the pilot colleges for the rest of the state, those schools have experienced problems with student schedules, financial aid, payroll, scheduling and bookkeeping.

Starting up the system at the “pilot” colleges at that time was the wrong decision, Marty Brown, executive director of the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, told senators.

“We have fallen short and not done as good a job as we could have done with training at the pilot colleges,” Brown said. There were also problems with the data transferred from the old computer system to the new one.

The board hired an independent consultant to review the problems, and received a report that pointed to 356 “remediations” that need to be made before ctcLink is installed at other community colleges. About 58 percent of those fixes have been made, Brown said.

Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, asked if there was a revised date for starting the installation at the other colleges. Michael Cockrill, state chief information officer, said that’s on hold because of the lawsuit.

Padden gave other members of the three committees – Ways and Means, Higher Education and State Government – a memo he said came from community college employees who questioned whether Washington even needed to replace its old system.

The “legacy” system was not failing and was flexible enough to meet each college’s needs, the memo said. Its coding has been modernized, is supported by major vendors and being used by multinational corporations.

“These systems are fully capable of being modified or extended to meet the evolving needs of the college,” the memo said.