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

$100 million software system for community colleges so flawed it will need millions more to fix

A $100 million computer software system for Washington’s 34 community colleges is so far behind schedule and operating so poorly that it will likely cost another $10 million before it’s installed in all schools.

Because students rather than taxpayers are responsible for the initial cost – and probably the overruns – the system and its problems have gone largely unnoticed by state lawmakers. That could change, however, as legislators try to get a handle on high costs and low performance by information technology systems around the state.

The system, known as ctcLink, is one of the largest IT projects in state government, and likely the largest of its kind in higher education in the country. It’s designed to tie together most financial, student scheduling and employee functions at the community colleges.

For community colleges in Spokane and Tacoma, which are the first and so far only schools to switch to the system, it generated a cascade of problems at the start of the fall quarter, some of which continue to this day.

Some students couldn’t register for their classes. Some couldn’t get their financial aid, while others got more aid than they were supposed to receive and the colleges had to get it back. Paychecks to some faculty were delayed and some personal information such as addresses, birth dates and Social Security numbers was not always secure. Those problems apparently have been fixed, but the schools’ main accounting system, the General Ledger, still doesn’t work, putting the schools in danger of losing federal aid because they can’t supply basic information the U.S. Department of Education requires.

“There have been some pretty significant glitches beyond what they expected,” said Jaime Smith, a spokeswoman for Gov. Jay Inslee. “It has been an incredibly bumpy start.”

Inslee’s office was monitoring progress, and while disappointed with the high number of problems does not see a need for additional action on major IT projects. “They’re not easy things that you just, on a dime, switch from one system to another,” Smith said.

Because the new system is financed by student fees it has had no legislative oversight. But after problems with ctcLink at Spokane and Tacoma community colleges, that could change.

“This project has kind of flown under the radar,” said Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Andy Hill, R-Redmond. “I think it’s something we’re going to insert ourselves into.”

The danger of being the guinea pig

As the state prepared to flip the switch on ctcLink at its first two institutions last summer, staff in Spokane and Tacoma urged the board that oversees all colleges to hold off one more time.

Initial testing in July did not go smoothly, administrators at those two colleges said.

The necessary staff training, system testing and validation had not been completed, Christine Johnson, chancellor of Community Colleges of Spokane, said recently. “It had not been tested all the way through,” she said.

But the start-up for ctcLink was already a year behind schedule and further delays at the first two test colleges would lead to delays at the succeeding “waves” of schools scheduled to get the update. The contractor contended the system was ready and the state Board of Community and Technical Colleges gave the green light.

“We had wished we were wrong,” Johnson said. But they weren’t.

Problems happened immediately and continued for weeks with student registrations and financial aid, class scheduling and payments to some instructors. Thousands of glitches occurred, from simple coding errors to overpayment of some $220,000 in financial aid to some students.

By the end of November, some three months after ctcLink went live at Spokane and Tacoma community colleges, nearly 4,900 problems had been reported on “tickets” – requests for help from IT experts at the state board or from the contractor for some aspect of the system that wasn’t working.

The delays, the fixes to the system, the overtime for staff trying to troubleshoot the problems could add as much as $10 million to the cost of the project, the Senate budget committee was told recently.

In hindsight, the state should have listened to the community colleges’ staff and delayed again, said Marty Brown, executive director of the State Board of Community and Technical Colleges.

“That’s on me,” Brown told the committee.

In a later interview he said the staff at the colleges were in a good position to know whether the system was ready.

As a result of the problems, the board and contractor have replaced some staff, he added. “We’ve changed project managers, personnel and the whole way we are approaching this.”

Who will pay that extra $10 million? That hasn’t been decided, but most people contacted for this story said it will likely be the same people who have been paying for ctcLink since 2011: Community college students.

$100 million and counting

For more than 30 years, Washington’s 34 community colleges have kept track of students, payroll and purchases with a computer software system known as Legacy. It was updated several times, but in 2007 the Board of Community and Technical Colleges decided Legacy was on its last legs.

Although some proponents of Legacy argued it could be updated, the board opted to solicit bids on a new system to keep track of some 400,000 students, 16,000 faculty and staff, different contracts and an array of main and branch campuses.

When fully installed, it will be one of the biggest, if not the biggest, such systems in the country, Brown said.

The board chose PeopleSoft, one of the most common software systems used by colleges and universities in the country, and hired Colorado-based Ciber to manage the installation and training. Total cost: about $3 million per college or $100 million over five years.

But while PeopleSoft is a common software product used in higher education, it has never been installed on a system as diverse and complicated as Washington’s community college system, which includes 30 districts, some like Spokane with multiple campuses, Brown said.

To pay for it as the state was still pulling itself out of the recession, the Legislature in 2011 approved a law that allowed all community colleges to raise tuition by 3 percent, placing that money in an “innovation fund.” About half of it will be used for direct costs and the rest will be used to pay off the principal and interest on certificates of participation – a type of public borrowing with shorter terms than most bond issues.

The software would be installed and tested at two community colleges first, to check for any glitches, then installed in waves of eight colleges each. The two-campus Community Colleges of Spokane and Tacoma Community College volunteered to be first.

Red flags raised by Spokane officials

CtcLink was originally scheduled to start operating at Spokane and Tacoma community colleges in August 2014. But the project was so complex start up was delayed, first until October 2014, then February 2015 and eventually August 2015. Last June, as the colleges were preparing for a dry run of system known as Day In the Life Spokane, officials became concerned about comments being made by the contractors about the schools’ readiness in a progress report. They shot back.

“It appears to me that a shift has occurred in blame and/or responsibility,” Lisa Hjaltalin, CCS chief financial officer wrote in an e-mail to other college officials. The report said staff would be trained in Olympia, which was unexpected, she added: “This is the first I am hearing that there will be no hands-on training in Spokane.”

The e-mail is one of more than 5,000 about ctcLink released by the Community Colleges of Spokane under a public records request from The Spokesman-Review. Those e-mails highlight the numerous problems Spokane and Tacoma had with the system in the second half of 2015.

David O’Neill, CCS chief information officer, told Hjaltalin and other top officials that anything less than a “stellar” performance on the dry run should cause a delay of the Aug. 24 start-up.

In early July, that test was not stellar. Of the 20 different functions being checked in the system, only three were rated at 100 percent. Tracking student data was at 20 percent; administering payment plans for tuition at 10 percent; parts of the process to pay vendors and some functions to track assets in the school’s general ledger were rated at 0 percent.

Some adjustments and improvements were made, but a week after the dry run, O’Neill told contractors responsible for installing the system that of the 315 primary business functions tested, only 45 percent had been completed.

As the state board delayed what was known as the “go/no go” decision on when the system would be live on the two campuses, community college staff became concerned about the lack of training, and the reduction of some functions they expected the new system to perform.

“They have just pulled most of our banking services out of scope on this project,” Hjaltalin wrote on July 16.

“Alarming,” wrote Johnson. “I think this is now about saving face with State Board.”

The board delayed that decision until July 23, but in the end, it was “go.” A week later, community college officials were raising concerns about inadequate training for the staff that would be dealing with the new system in less than a month. Some training wasn’t conducted in the new system, some was little more than a demonstration; some sessions were canceled because training materials weren’t ready and some functions would have no training at all, O’Neill wrote on July 31. “Our staff is frustrated and concerned.”

Systems speak a different language

One problem with taking the community colleges off Legacy and putting it on ctcLink is the two systems are written in different computer languages. They didn’t “talk” well to each other, staff quickly learned.

Another problem was that over the decades, each college had discovered functions that were difficult to do in Legacy, so staff had created work-arounds – essentially special programs that ctcLink hadn’t been set up to handle.

Making the switch at the beginning of the fall quarter, essentially a new school year with many first-time students enrolling, applying for aid and signing up for classes, was also a bad time to start a new system. The next wave of colleges will make the switch between the start of the fall and winter quarters, Brown said.

The Legacy system was not shut down at the two test colleges because the new system needed to pull data from it. But no new data was entered in Legacy after Aug. 24, so Spokane and Tacoma had no backup system for that new information about students, schedules or finances if ctcLink failed.

Long lines formed at offices where students signed up for classes. Some students who counted on financial aid for their tuition, books or living expenses didn’t get checks. Others got more than they should have; the colleges initially told them they couldn’t enroll in the winter quarter until it was repaid but later changed that policy to give students more time.

As problems continued through the fall, community college staff became concerned that the main accounting system, known as the General Ledger, still wasn’t working. Because of that the colleges couldn’t reconcile accounts and provide the information necessary to show how it was disbursing student aid and federal grants. It was violating the Higher Education Opportunity Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act and accreditation standards, financial staff warned in mid-November in a 10-page letter titled “Compliance Concerns due to ctcLink.”

As the winter quarter started, many problems for students and faculty appeared under control. But the General Ledger still is not working properly.

“I hope it will be stable the second of third week of February,” said Brown. State and federal auditors should give the colleges time to file necessary reports without sanctions once the ledger is running properly, he added.

State has plenty of IT woes

CtcLink is not the only problem state government has with its computer systems. An incorrectly written program at the Department of Corrections led to more than 3,000 inmates being released before their sentences had been fully served; two of those inmates were involved in homicides during times they should have been in prison.

A system to keep track of the hours worked by employees at the Transportation and Ecology departments was behind schedule and needed an extra $18 million because the vendor hired by the state couldn’t do the job.

A system to pay daycare providers for children eligible for state money from the Department of Early Learning was canceled because it “was not ready to go,” Department Director Ross Hunter said.

Most of those get a review by the Legislature at least every two years as part of the budget process. CtcLink does not because the money comes from student tuition.

Hill, the Senate Republicans’ top budget expert, said “it’s clearly frustrating, and sort of ironic” that students, who were among the most disadvantaged by problems in the system, will bear the burden of cost overruns to fix it.

Legislators are talking about an IT task force to keep better track of those projects.

“The state is spending more than a billion dollars a year on IT and there’s not enough oversight,” he said. “We’re going to be taking a closer look at that.”