News: CJ Exclusives

NC WISE Program Riddled With Problems

Software program supposed to replace aging SIMS management system

Excitement was in the air when installation began on the Department of Public Instruction’s NC WISE computer system in 1998. Eight years later the program, riddled by problems, is so far behind schedule it remains stuck in the first of three phases.

IBM is responsible for installing the new technology program, the first of its kind in any state, to replace the obsolete Student Information Management System within the N.C. Public School System. Once completed, the integrated computer program is supposed to help teachers, administrators, and other officials manage student information.

State Board of Education Chairman Howard Lee is fed up with the delays in the process and decided to step in and take the reins of the project when he realized both the state and IBM were at fault for the long delays.

“I inserted myself into the NC WISE process to hurry its outcome,” he said. “The system is not working well and is not very dependable. There are a lot of holes. The state has never clearly delineated the management line.”

IBM bears a lot of the blame for not delivering what it promised in its contractual agreement with the state, Lee said. As a result, the company might be at risk of losing the account.

“IBM has demanded to be paid, but they haven’t delivered what they promised,” Lee said. “They have never deployed a first-rate team. I sent a letter saying, ‘you will deliver this criteria or we won’t pay.’”

Although the DPI is hoping IBM will reconsider the relationship with the state and repair the Window of Information on Student Education, Philip Price, Chief Financial Officer and Associate State Superintendent, said there are many kinks to work out through negotiations before the problems can be resolved.

“Specific deliverables are tied to each payment,” he said. “The contract allows us to withhold payment if any of the deliverables haven’t been made. There was a breach of action. We haven’t got what we paid for yet.”

IBM spokeswoman Alise McNeill said the company is working hard to resolve the matter. “IBM has fulfilled its contractual obligations,” she said. “And hopes to resolve this matter with the state.”

Caught in the middle of this tug-of-war are teachers and administrators throughout the state. “We are the ones suffering by what is going on between the two entities,” said Betty Weycker, assistant superintendent for technology at Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools. “We are concerned with litigation between IBM and DPI. We’re frightened about what will happen to our system if it changes ownership.”

There are other concerns, too. Rumors about the slowdown escalating the cost of the project from $54 million to $250 million are incorrect, Price said.

“The initial contract with Price Waterhouse-Coopers was for $54.4 million,” he said. “$32.9 million of this was to purchase the software that is the foundation for NC WISE, $6.7 million to adapt this to North Carolina’s needs and pilot in 22 schools. The remaining was an estimate of deployment cost. It was never considered to be enough to roll to all 115 LEAs and 100 charter schools.”

The initial contract did not include $130 million needed to pay state personnel assigned to the project, cost for charter schools and local schools to scale-up/staff for NC WISE, software to run/support the system, hosting, disaster recovery or equipment purchases, Price said.

Since IBM purchased PWC, Price said DPI entered into a fixed-price contract for NC WISE. However, the scope of services broadens from the initial pilot schools to all 115 school districts within the state.

“The new fixed-price contract was to cover the complete roll-out to all charter schools and local school systems,” he said. “This contract, scope adjustments and expanded pilot, plus the establishment of a contingency reserve, added $60 million to the cost. If you add all this up, you will get the current estimated total cost of ownership of around $250 million.”

Bob Bellamy, associate superintendent of Accountability and Technology Services at DPI, said that NC WISE is not inexpensive, but that it’s a great investment.

“It’s rather a significant investment of the state, but, if we get what we pay for, then it will be worth it,” he said. “This is state of the art. This system wasn’t even a gleam in someone else’s eye yet when SIMS was developed. It should last at least 20 years once everything is in place.”

There are other costs associated with being the first client to install a computer system of this caliber, Bellamy said. “It certainly was scheduled to be in a different phase,” he said. “It’s a huge, complex system to deploy. There have been some major glitches. It hasn’t functioned as it should and it has had some performance issues that need to be resolved. We want to make sure the system is right before moving on.”

Ray Reitz, chief technology officer of Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, said that his district was one of the first to install the system five years ago and that trouble should be expected when converting to a new system.

Although the state and local districts underestimated the resources required undertaking the project; the system should be finished because it is still a viable and useful tool for the future, he said. “It’s a giant step organizationally and technologically supporting the NC WISE system statewide,” Reitz said. “But the benefits outweigh the limitations.”

The districts will have to wait awhile longer to hear the outcome of talks between the DPI and IBM, Lee said. However, he said the matter should be resolved by Feb. 8, he said.

Karen Welsh is a contributing editor of Carolina Journal.