New questions are surfacing about the November 2000 departure of a high-ranking Berkeley Unified School District employee and an $800,000 consulting contract that followed.
On Nov. 17, 2000, the district parted ways with the one person who knew how to run its quirky, old data processing system and hired a pricey consulting firm to replace him one month later. The consultant, Modular Information Systems of San Ramon, then contracted with the former district employee, data processing manager Don Abare, to help manage the aging, often-criticized system, which has since been replaced.
Along the way, the cash-strapped school district spent $700,000 on consulting fees and is slated to spend up to $100,000 more, according to district officials.
Meanwhile, the data processing system, which has been slowly phased out amid implementation of a newer system, has caused numerous problems, including double payment of employees last year.
The new data system, Quintessential School Systems, which ran its first payroll Wednesday, is also struggling. About 100 employees with direct deposit did not receive checks, and the system failed to withhold sufficient taxes for married workers.
District officials contend the problems now are relatively minor ones and say that QSS will mark a major improvement in the payroll process.
As for the costly transition, district administrators and board of education members say they had little alternative to hiring MIS after Abare’s departure. They claim that the consulting bill is justified.
They also note that MIS has done more than simply perform Abare’s old duties. In the past year, the firm developed an operations manual for the old system, made programming improvements for that system and helped convert it to a new computer platform, according to Associate Superintendent of Business Jerry Kurr. Board of education member Ted Schultz said these services were “essential” to keeping the business office up and running before QSS went into place.
Still, some officials say the consulting fees add up to a major, if necessary, expense for a district that has cut millions of dollars from its budget and still faces an estimated $2.5 million deficit next year.
“That was a very expensive process,” said Board President Shirley Issel. “It’s a big, big part of the budget problems we’re in.”
“I don’t think it’s a big problem because it’s a one-time expenditure,” he said, arguing that ongoing liabilities are a larger concern when it comes to the district’s long-term fiscal health.
Either way, Issel and Schultz agree that the district could not have avoided the consulting expense.
Abare, though, differs sharply.
A controversial departure
The circumstances of Abare’s Nov. 17, 2000, departure are somewhat mysterious. An agreement between the former data processing manager and the district limits what either side can discuss.
Abare said he was “pushed out” because of his opposition to the QSS conversion. And school board member Terry Doran suggested that a conflict over QSS did, indeed, lead to Abare’s departure.
“We had several consulting firms analyze our systems over the last four years, all of which recommended changing our old system and converting to a new system,” Doran said. “Don Abare would still be with us if he agreed with that.”
But Abare said that a spring 2000 consulting report on the old system included laughable errors and that the system functioned well. He argued that the district made a costly mistake in letting him go, hiring MIS to run the old data processor and converting to QSS.
Abare noted that the high-profile double-payment of classified employees in March 2001 came after he left the district, and he said that things have not improved with QSS.
“They’ve spent a lot of money migrating to the new system and look what happened,” Abare said, referring to this week’s payroll mistakes.
District officials have long complained that the old data processing system produced bad budget information and inaccurate paychecks, contributing to the district’s deficit.
Abare countered that the problem was not with the system, but with the human processes surrounding it. Principals couldn’t read budget documents because they lacked adequate training, not because the documents were poorly-calculated, he said. And late time sheets, rather than the data processing system, led to payroll errors.
Kurr, the associate superintendent of business, agreed that the “manual processes” surrounding payroll have been the most significant problem with processing paychecks.
He also said adequate staff training is important, particularly with the recent conversion to an entirely new system, and noted that the district has scheduled an Aug. 14 training with school site administrators.
But Kurr also argued that there were fundamental problems with the old data processing system itself, arguing that it did not properly integrate the various ledgers and sub-ledgers in the system.
Joel Montero, deputy executive officer for the Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance Team, a state agency that has been advising the district since November, said there are also inherent difficulties with one-of-a-kind systems, like the old Berkeley data processor, that are dependent on one or a few employees to run them.
“They tend to be personnel-specific,” he said. “When people leave or retire, the knowledge of the system walks out the door with them.”
Systems like QSS, used by 20 to 30 percent of California school systems according to Montero, have a broad base of users who can be tapped if problems emerge.
“I understand the argument, but I feel there is a trade-off because the pre-existing system was tailored to meet the district’s needs,” Abare said, arguing that the district lost more than it gained when it got rid of him and moved to QSS.
“It’s ironic,” he continued, with a laugh. “I feel that I was too successful. They just realized, ‘oh, we’re too dependent on Don Abare.’”
MIS President Lisa Corbett said she could not comment because of a confidentiality agreement with the district.
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