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

Spokane’s community colleges still wrestling with ‘troubled’ software system

Christine Johnson, chancellor of the Community Colleges of Spokane, said a series of problems with a $100 million software system for the state’s network of 34 community colleges was unexpected. The ctcLink system is $10 million over budget, the schedule remains in doubt and the test schools in Spokane and Tacoma have piled up more than $800,000 in overtime costs. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

If the Community Colleges of Spokane knew how much being the test case for a new computer system would cost in overtime, blown deadlines and disruption to students, faculty and staff, the schools would not have volunteered for the job, Chancellor Christine Johnson said.

“We didn’t expect it would be this troubled (of a) system,” Johnson said recently of the $100 million software system purchased to run most aspects of accounting, finances and student affairs for the state’s network of 34 community colleges.

Now an estimated $10 million over budget and several years behind schedule, the system known as ctcLink still isn’t working properly at the two institutions that volunteered to be guinea pigs – the two-school system in Spokane and Tacoma Community College.

The overtime racked up by Community Colleges of Spokane alone is more than $500,000 – and growing. At last report, Tacoma had spent $306,000 on overtime in efforts to make ctcLink work. There’s no assurance the schools will get help offsetting those costs from the other community colleges that someday will benefit from the mistakes found and fixed at the test schools.

In March, the Spokane colleges asked the state Board for Community and Technical Colleges to reimburse overtime costs, and that request was forwarded to an executive committee of the presidents of the other colleges. The board oversees the state’s 34 schools and selected ctcLink to replace a system more than three decades old.

But other school presidents have budget worries of their own and have not yet committed to sharing the financial burden of bringing the system up to snuff by helping out Spokane and Tacoma.

“We hope so,” Johnson said. But if they refuse, CCS may ask the Legislature to cover those costs, she added.

The overtime costs are relatively easy to track, Johnson said. Estimating the costs of lost productivity and slower processing of transactions is more difficult.

Johnson is quick to praise the dedication of staff who have struggled with problems in the new system for more than a year. It was the confidence in the staff, and CCS’ desire to have better technology to serve its students and employees, that prompted administrators to volunteer to be a test site. But when asked if she’d do that again, Johnson said no.

It’s possible the state board overreached by buying the same system for all community colleges in the state, she added.

“Maybe a 34-school system approach isn’t the best,” she said.

As reported earlier this year by The Spokesman-Review, the guinea pig schools encountered a range of problems when they flipped the switch on the new system: Students being bumped out of classes in which they had properly enrolled. Financial aid not being credited to their accounts for tuition or books. Faculty not being paid on time. The colleges’ financial records not being ready for state and federal auditors.

When it was selected, ctcLink was one of the larger IT projects in state government, and fitting it into 34 schools in 30 districts made it one of the more complex. It’s supposed to handle everything from student enrollment and scheduling to financial aid, staff payroll and the financial books – and let colleges easily share data.

The state Board for Community and Technical Colleges, which oversees the schools, planned to have the software installed at different colleges in groups, or “waves,” after it was up and running in the test site colleges in Spokane and Tacoma in 2014. The last wave of schools was supposed to install ctcLink by 2017.

After several scheduling delays, ctcLink was put online at the test schools in fall quarter 2015, despite warnings from IT staff in Spokane that it wasn’t ready. Problems arose immediately for students, faculty and administrators. Some of the biggest problems occurred because the new software and the old system, known as Legacy, used different computer languages and didn’t “speak” to each other.

Information technology staff from the two institutions, the state board and the vendor, Colorado-based Ciber, scrambled to fix problems, which continued to develop. Federal and state auditors said the schools weren’t able to provide them with required information on how they were disbursing student aid, which put such payments in jeopardy.

In January, Marty Brown, Community and Technical Colleges board president, told legislators at a hearing that the schools expected to have problems fixed in February and hoped to begin installing ctcLink in the next 10 colleges in the fall.

That, too, proved overly optimistic, as problems continued in Spokane and Tacoma. This fall, the board hired outside experts for $200,000 to study the problems with the startup and make recommendations on how to proceed. In November, the team from the Gartner Group said ctcLink shouldn’t be installed in the next wave of community colleges before October 2017, and only then if all problems are fixed at the test schools.

It laid out a series of recommendations that include improved project controls; developing a list of problems in the pilot schools and fixing them; and improving training, testing, tech support and startup procedures before putting the system in any new colleges.

Although the delays have put the project at least $10 million over budget, that extra cost won’t be borne by taxpayers, but by students.

The board borrowed the money for ctcLink and is paying it back with an increase in student tuition that goes into an “innovation fund” the Legislature approved in 2011. The fund helps pay off principal and interest on certificates of participation, a type of public borrowing with shorter terms than most bond issues.

The extra $10 million will also come out of the innovation fund, which means the fund will be tapped for ctcLink longer than originally estimated. Johnson fears that could have devastating consequences if the fund doesn’t have the money the colleges expect to use for new equipment needed for certain programs.

“Our health care programs need up-to-date medical equipment to train students,” Johnson said. So do programs in aerospace and other technology-dependent fields, she said.