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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Community Colleges of Spokane caught in computer system snarl

By Jim Camden and Eli Francovich The Spokesman-Review

Mylia Diomede is irritated. Standing in line Wednesday at Spokane Community College nearly three weeks after classes started, Diomede still doesn’t have her financial aid money, which she depends on for such essentials as prescription glasses, a printer and gas money.

“Yeah, it’s frustrating because there are things I need for school and I was going to use that money to pay for them,” said Diomede, who works at a Valley call center and is returning to college as a freshman to study nursing.

Diomede isn’t alone. She’s among hundreds of students caught up in the problems of a new $100 million computer software system that is supposed to revolutionize record keeping at Washington’s community colleges. The system is more than a year behind schedule. It has cost the Community Colleges of Spokane − one of two beta test schools − at least $1.3 million in extra personnel costs trying to get it up and running.

Officials for the state and the college say they are working to correct the problems, and insist such glitches are common to any major change in computer programs.

“We need this new technology,” Community Colleges of Spokane Chancellor Christine Johnson said. “We wanted very much to be a pilot project.”

But Johnson and others admit the system continues to have problems tracking students and their financial aid more than six weeks after it came online in August. It originally was scheduled to be up and running in August 2014, but that start date was delayed three times because of problems getting the system, known as ctcLink, to match up with the state community colleges’ old software, which is about 30 years old.

The State Board for Community and Technical Colleges agreed in 2013 to a $100 million contract to purchase and install ctcLink in all of Washington’s 34 community colleges. The software is used at educational institutions around the country. Rather than install it in all Washington community colleges at the same time, the board decided to have it installed in “waves.” Spokane and Tacoma community colleges were chosen for that first wave. They are the beta testers, the guinea pigs.

The schools are different because Spokane has two campuses and Tacoma only has one main campus. But both have had similar problems and delays getting the system up and running. Andy Duckworth, project director at Tacoma Community College, said the main problem is customizing the new system so it can share data with the old system.

As of July, Community Colleges of Spokane had spent an extra $1.3 million to train staff and pay overtime to correct the many problems they encountered, Johnson said. It’s more than that by now, but how much more the school doesn’t know.

An unknown number of students have had problems registering for classes, getting their financial aid packages approved and getting money applied to tuition or provided to them for expenses. Asked to quantify those numbers, Johnson replied “I would definitely say hundreds. I hope it’s not thousands.”

Because of continuing problems with the system processing and recording scholarships, grants and loans, the colleges decided not to drop any students from classes for payment issues and made arrangements with the campus bookstore to get textbooks to students whose financial aid is caught in the computer glitch.

The minutes of the Community Colleges of Spokane trustees’ meetings for the last 18 months reflect the growing concern over delays and staff experiences with ctcLink. Before the original start date in August 2014, the reports of staff learning the new system were mostly positive. Then the start was postponed until November 2014, and reports of higher costs and delays started coming in. In December, after another delay, the colleges were projecting a February start and the trustees were given warnings of increased workloads. A month later they were told steps needed to be taken to “reduce stress during the ctcLink project.” As the change-over date of August 2015 approached, trustees apparently were so leery of the system that one asked if it would be a good idea to keep the old software system running, just in case, and there were concerns when trustees were told that wasn’t possible.

“We hoped the delays would make sure the transition was going to be as smooth as possible,” said Beth Thew, a trustee. “We’re two or three weeks into the quarter and we’re still trying to work out bugs.”

Students who registered for summer and fall classes at the end of the spring term in May used the old system and had relatively few problems. Students who missed those deadlines, or were new to the colleges this quarter, registered after mid-August and used ctcLink. They are the ones far more likely to have problems.

Thew said one of her concerns is the effect these problems could have on new students, or those returning to school after a long hiatus. “We don’t want to discourage somebody from going back to school,” she said.

Because of the problems in Spokane and Tacoma, the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges has postponed by one year, to August 2018, the date when all 34 Washington community colleges will be running on ctcLink. The board has sent some of its technical experts to the Spokane and Tacoma schools to help the institutions’ staff and experts from Ciber, the Colorado IT company with the contract, to get the software up and running. A spokesman for the state attorney general said no legal action was being considered against the IT company at this point.

“The hardship that they’re going through is going to make it a better process for the remaining colleges,” said Laura McDowell, director of communications for the state board.

The board is confident problems will be worked out and is not rethinking its selection, she added.

But Thew and others wondered if the board will be grateful enough to its guinea pigs to to reimburse the Spokane and Tacoma institutions for the costs of those hardships. “Do the individual campuses have to eat that when money is so tight?” she asked.

That remains to be seen, McDowell said. “At this point, I have not heard anything about the overtime being covered by the state.”