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Washington sued over community colleges’ troubled software system

UPDATED: Fri., April 28, 2017

OLYMPIA – The company that has filed for bankruptcy in the middle of a troubled project to install a new computer software system for Washington’s community colleges is suing the state, claiming it is owed some $13 million.

Ciber Inc., a Colorado-based information technology company, filed the claim this month in federal bankruptcy court in Delaware, where it is seeking Chapter 11 reorganization protection from creditors. The company says the State Board of Community and Technical Colleges, which operates 34 colleges around Washington, hasn’t made the final payments due on a contract of nearly $44 million.

The lawsuit claims that some people it worked with at the community colleges were “hostile” to the new system and didn’t participate in training, delaying the project. The board asked for repeated change orders to add functions to the system and eventually “reneged” on payments, it says.

A spokeswoman for the community colleges board would only say that they assume the lawsuit is tied to Ciber’s bankruptcy and is being handled by the state attorney general’s office.

“We remain committed to making this project a success for the three pilot colleges – Tacoma, Spokane and Spokane Falls – and the rest of our colleges,” Laura McDowell said.

Ciber signed a contract with the board in 2013 to install ctcLink – a software system that would handle everything from student enrollments and financial aid to administration and staff paychecks – at all community colleges in the state system, and help train college staff to operate it.

Rather than install the program at all colleges at the same time, the Community Colleges of Spokane and Tacoma Community College were selected for a pilot program to test the system and work out any problems, with other schools to be connected in phases over five years.

The pilot program quickly developed problems. Its start was delayed for a year, and when the schools did switch over to ctcLink at the beginning of fall semester 2015, they experienced a wide range of glitches with enrollments, class schedules and accounting. Some students didn’t get their financial aid on time and some staff didn’t get their paychecks.

The board put installation of the software in other colleges temporarily on hold until the problems in Spokane and Tacoma could be worked out. The payment schedules were revised, the lawsuit said, as were plans to install ctcLink in more colleges. Problems continued to develop at the pilot schools and the installation at other colleges continued to be pushed back; in January 2016 the Legislature was told the $100 million project was an estimated $10 million over budget.

Last year, the board hired a consultant to review the problems the project experienced in Spokane and Tacoma. The state’s Office of the Chief Information Officer told lawmakers earlier this month that consultants have recommended a “pause” until those problems can be worked out.

But the lawsuit says the consultant “identified a lack of clear governance” as one of the problems that needs to be solved. The board halted plans to put ctcLink into the first wave of schools until problems were solved, and refused to make the final payment to Ciber.

Some of the early problems were a result of some schools being “unwilling” to adopt ctcLink, the lawsuit says.

“In particular, Spokane Community College was hostile to implementing ctcLink from the very beginning” and leadership didn’t participate in necessary changes, the lawsuit says. Later, the board demanded numerous “change orders” that were outside the scope of work Ciber had been hired to do, it says.

The company has done the work it was contracted to do, but the board has withheld the $13 million it is owed, the lawsuit says. CtcLink is ready for installation in the other schools but the board is deliberately delaying its adoption to avoid paying that money, it contends.

Ciber is suing the state and the community colleges board for breach of contract and failure to act in good faith. The money it’s owed “is critical to the operations of Ciber,” the suit says.

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