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APS Lawson Program Doesn't Track Projects

By Andrea Schoellkopf
Copyright 2008 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Staff Writer
    Albuquerque Public Schools has pumped nearly $23 million into its Lawson financial computer software system since 2003— triple the original cost.
    And the system still doesn't have the capacity to handle the nearly 400 projects APS has under construction at a total cost of about $600 million.
    "There is no way to actually track our budgets," Karen Alarid, who oversees the district's construction projects, told the school board in December. "... Approximately three years into the new master plan, there's no more ability to create a report or reconciliation on the projects. It's a serious problem."
    Anyone wanting a report must ask the private architects handling the projects.
    "To me, it's a huge blunder that was missed ages ago," said Zane Myers of Edward Jones Investments, member of a capital advisory committee that consults with APS monthly. "Why isn't it part of their (Lawson's) system? . . If it's not, why would you continue doing business with them?"
    A marketing director for Lawson says the system can handle the tasks. It's just that APS has been using an outdated version and may not have included the function of tracking construction projects in its initial contract, said Ken Munson, who is based in Washington, D.C.
    "We just worked on a major upgrade" with APS, he said. The newer system is to go into operation next month.
A few problems
    Lawson's job was to unify the various systems APS used for payroll, budget and human resources.
    Today, APS has two problems with it: It can't handle budgets from multiple years, such as construction projects that last longer than one calendar year; and it can't get some of the accounting functions to work together on tracking projects.
    APS started using the $7 million Lawson system in 2003 and immediately fell behind in paying its vendors. As a result, cell phone service was temporarily cut off for APS police officers, and first-class mail was halted because it exceeded the postage meter limit.
    Employees said a lack of training was the biggest reason for the computer problems.
    Since then, APS has paid $16.8 million to bring Lawson on line and to train employees.
    APS board member Robert Lucero is ready for a change.
    "I think it's time the district looks at something different," said Lucero, who chairs the board's finance committee. "... If the computer system was working so well, we wouldn't have these long delays in our audits."
    Munson said the recently installed upgrades will speed things up.
    "Obviously, they were really on an older version of the software," he said.
    APS interim superintendent Linda Sink recently proposed spending another $500,000 for Lawson to meet the demands of the construction department, though the district is looking at other options.
    "I think there is light at the end of the tunnel on this," Sink told a citizens advisory group last week.
    Brad Winter, facilities director, said one of the goals was to make the construction process "more transparent" so it would be clear whether money was being spent effectively. But key data are not available from the system.
    So far, there hasn't been a problem, but APS has had to continue its longstanding practice of relying on contracted architects to keep project records so progress and spending can be monitored.
    "They say Lawson is a very robust system and should do a lot of stuff, but it doesn't work for us," Alarid said.
    Myers said the capital program should have been identified initially.
    "If you think about it, you've had a relationship with so-called experts for nine years," Myers said. "... and the whole capital program was ignored in that initial software that was developed for you guys."
    Last month, Deputy Superintendent Tom Savage told the group Lawson was working for "99 percent of the district."
    "We've got the numbers in the system," he said. "But what we're wanting to do is manipulate financial information in ways we never had before."
    The problem, Savage said, is the lack of trained APS employees who can quickly program Lawson to do what the district wants.
    He said the information is there and can be pulled up "eventually, with confidence."
    The system, however, isn't moving as rapidly as APS' construction projects, which are being built "with the speed of light."
    He said the finance, human resources and construction departments need employees who understand the systems well enough to program them rather than relying on programmers in other departments or outside consultants.
    "We spend a lot of money paying consultants to come and build systems, write the software and make the repairs," he said. "When the consultants leave, we haven't done a good enough job of training our own people to do the job."
    Tom Ryan, who heads APS' technology department, blames the training costs on a change in the state's coding system because of the No Child Left Behind Act. The change meant that, three years into the new system, APS had to retrain employees.
    Also, staffers and decision-makers who are familiar with the system are asked to get it up and running on top of their usual responsibilities.
    "It burns people out and they don't stay, so you lose whatever knowledge they uniquely may have had (about) the project," he said.