Peralta Board OKs Assessment of Information Technology By J. DOUGLAS ALLEN-TAYLOR

Friday July 01, 2005

With Trustee Nicky Gonzalez Yuen providing the lone but spirited dissent, Peralta Trustees agreed Tuesday night to a modified Hewlett-Packard study and assessment of the community college district’s information technology operations. 

At the same meeting, trustees gave first approval to the district’s $90.1 million tentative budget for 2005-06. The new Peralta budget maintains the state-mandated 5 percent reserve, and projects a $2.6 million increase over this year’s totals. 

The $30,000 HP contract proposal was pushed through by Trustee Linda Handy, who has been attempting for months to get an independent assessment of the district’s IT operations. Handy is the chair of the board’s Technology Committee. 

The proposal was approved 6-0-1, with Yuen abstaining. 

The scope of the work to be carried out by HP was developed in the board’s Technology Committee, without input from the district’s technology department. 

“This is supposed to be an assessment to come directly to the board for its own evaluation,” Handy explained. “That’s why staff was not included in its development.” 

Details of the contract are still being worked out by Peralta General Counsel Thuy Nguyen to include modifications suggested by trustees at Tuesday’s meeting. Those modifications included moving the starting date of the assessment from July to September, and a provision that HP could not later bid on work contracts for any of the items included in the assessment.  

Peralta is currently in the midst of a district-wide conversion to an information management system purchased from PeopleSoft. The finance, human resources, and payroll portions of that conversion are scheduled to “go live on July 5,” according to Peralta Chief Information Officer Andy DiGirolamo. The PeopleSoft system is scheduled for full implementation by October of 2006. 

In supporting the HP study, Trustee Bill Withrow said that “given our financial commitment to IT, we should have a third party come in and validate what we’re doing, set the record straight, and see if we’re on the right track.” 

Handy agreed. 

“The concerns over Peralta’s IT started before most of you came on the board,” she told Trustees, more than half of whom were elected in last November’s elections. She said that she had received numerous complaints about “too much equipment that has been authorized and purchased but now is just sitting there, unused,” including “the Voice Over IP system—we now have 250 phones that have just been abandoned.” Handy added that she had been “trying to get this assessment done since last September. For some reason it’s been stalled and stalled and stalled.” 

But Yuen raised several questions about the proposed contract, including possible conflict of interest by HP, and what he called board “micro-managing” of district operations. 

Because HP has done technology work for the Peralta District in the past, Yuen said “it looks like we’re hiring a fox to come in and assess another fox. I’d feel more comfortable if it wasn’t HP doing the assessment.” He also said that the assessment “strikes me as being outside the scope of what the board should be doing” and cited recent findings by the district’s accrediting agency, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), that the Peralta board “was not staying within proper board functions.” “I’m not personally comfortable cutting the chancellor and his entire staff out of developing the scope of this study. It seems crazy to cut the administration and staff out of the loop,” he said. 

In answer to a question, Chancellor Harris appeared resigned to the decision, saying he had no problem with the board itself setting the scope of the work of the assessment without staff input. “This is a trustee decision,” he said. “If you’re comfortable with the scope, we don’t have anything more to say about that.” 

Yuen’s amendment to have the chancellor’s office formulate the scope of the study was defeated on a 1-5-1 vote, with Yuen providing the single aye and trustee Alona Clifton abstaining. 

Chief Information Officer DiGirolamo, Chancellor Elihu Harris, and Vice Chancellor Tom Smith all expressed concerns about the timing of the study, which was originally scheduled to begin July 11. 

DiGirolamo said that the assessment would “put undue stress on staff. It would take staff away when they should be on-call to troubleshoot problems” associated with the PeopleSoft conversion.” He said that his office was not opposed to an outside assessment, but requested that it be conducted after the PeopleSoft conversion had been online for several months. “Otherwise,” he said, “the practices they are looking at may have already been changed by the time the study comes out.” 

But Handy said that the study was not just about the PeopleSoft conversion but “about our whole migration from an antiquated information system. We’ve got systems that are so old that we had to bring people out of retirement just so we could understand how they work.” In addition, she argued that the study should be done before the conversion is completed “because we don’t want to wait until something has gone wrong and then say, ‘oops, my bad.’” 

While Chancellor Harris said he “still disagreed with the timing” of the study, Vice Chancellor Smith—who oversees the district’s finances and who originally expressed skepticism about the study—said that moving the starting date to September “is better” and added that “some of what Trustee Handy said is persuasive.”r