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Troubled software for Washington community colleges on ‘pause’ as vendor files for bankruptcy

April 12, 2017 GMT

OLYMPIA – A $100 million software system that was pushed online at the Community Colleges of Spokane more than a year and a half ago still doesn’t work properly and the vendor hired to install it filed for bankruptcy this week, a legislative panel was told Tuesday.

Consultants hired to study problems with the software, known as ctcLink, have told the state Board of Community and Technical Colleges to “pause” the installation until all problems can be worked out at Spokane, Spokane Falls and Tacoma community colleges.

“They’ve completely blown their schedule,” said Rob St. John, deputy director of the Office of the Chief Information Officer. The question for the colleges and the board, he added, is “how do they put this project back on the rails?”

That pause could be extended for an undetermined period because Ciber Inc., an international technology company hired to install the software, filed Sunday for Chapter 11 reorganization. Concerns over the bankruptcy prompted a legislative hearing Tuesday morning about ctcLink and other technology problems by state agencies in the House State Government, Elections and Information Technology Committee.

If the problems can’t be fixed, St. John told the committee, “our nuclear option is to kill the project.”

In a later interview, St. John stressed that killing the project would be a last resort. Before that happens, the colleges will try to put in place recommendations from an independent consultant hired to recommend changes. One of those recommendations, which the college board is following, is to pause any further installation of the software at any of the state’s other community colleges.

Different budget proposals already approved by the Senate and House give the state’s technology office the authority to suspend the project if doesn’t meet performance measures, timelines or budget estimates. The Senate budget goes even further, mandating a reduction in the amount of money the community colleges can spend on ctcLink until the work in Spokane and Tacoma is finished.

Committee Chairman Zack Hudgins, D-Tukwila, said canceling the ctcLink project isn’t “on the table” right now, because it would waste the money already spent and the community colleges would still have to replace the aging software system. That older system is no longer operating at the three test colleges.

As The Spokesman-Review first reported in October 2015, Spokane, Spokane Falls and Tacoma community colleges agreed to be the first schools to install the new system that was selected in 2012 by the state Board of Community and Technical Colleges. The goal was for a single system for all 34 of the state’s community colleges that could do everything from student enrollment and financial aid, to payroll and personnel.

When those “guinea pig” schools began using it for the fall 2015 quarter, however, some students in Spokane and Tacoma were bumped out of classes for which they had previously registered and others didn’t get their financial aid payments. Some faculty did not receive paychecks, and the colleges’ bookkeeping system had trouble tracking some payments.

As existing problems got fixed, new ones developed. By January 2016, the community college board said the $100 million project was at least $10 million over budget, and months behind schedule. By the end of 2016, Community Colleges of Spokane reported it had racked up at least $500,000 in overtime trying to fix the problems and the date to begin installing it in the next wave of community colleges was being delayed.

The $100 million to buy and install the software will come from student fees, not from tax dollars, as the estimated $10 million for cost overruns. Because of that, the state community college board, not the Legislature, was responsible for awarding the contract to Ciber five years ago.

“Things move rapidly in IT,” Hudgins said. “Five years ago, they could’ve been awesome. Now, five years later, they’re in trouble.”

Reuters reported that Ciber filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection Sunday with an offer from a French company, Capgemini, to buy its North American and Indian assets for $50 million. Ciber reported assets and liabilities between $50 million and $100 million.

When the community college board selected the software and the vendor, it was not required to get approval from another state agency. Since then, changes in state policies for major information technology projects will require the Office of the Chief Information Officer to do a readiness assessment before it can continue, St. John said.

Hudgins said the state now has “multiple layers of oversight” for major technology projects, but the Legislature’s role is limited for a project that doesn’t require tax dollars.

“The Legislature doesn’t usually get involved until something breaks or hits the ground,” he said.