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Balto. Co. schools' Y2K fees to double; Officials will spend $650,000 to ensure pay system works

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The cost of the Baltimore County school system's Y2K payroll insurance has more than doubled.

School officials will spend $650,000 for emergency payroll services in case a decade-old computer payroll system fails to work after Jan. 1.

Earlier, officials agreed to pay at least $281,630 to ADP Inc. of Owings Mills to prepare a backup plan for a possible Y2K failure. That would have been the only cost, officials said, if Y2K fixes to the old payroll system were ready by Dec. 10, the deadline for deciding to spend for the additional ADP services.

School officials say the fixes have been made, but they want added assurance that the county's 17,000 school employees will be paid well into the millennium.

"It is impossible to be 100 percent positive, and so we simply cannot take a chance with an issue as sensitive as Y2K when it comes to protection of our employees," said school system chief financial officer Robin Churchill.

The school system's agreement with ADP -- struck two months before the end of the year with no public discussion -- provided that the company could issue checks each pay period between Jan. 1 and June 30 for $1.56 per check.

The system agreed to pay up to $650,000 regardless of whether checks are issued. But now school officials say they don't need the company to print checks -- and that means taxpayers will be paying ADP simply to be available for an emergency such as a fire or big computer failure.

"That's one of the unfortunate conclusions of coming to this decision so late," said Board of Education member John A. Hayden. "It's a shame that there wasn't an earlier recognition that the issue was there."

The agreement

When the county school board approved the agreement with ADP in November, some members believed that the price would be reduced if ADP's full services weren't needed.

But Churchill said that once school officials decided last week not to rely completely on their system, ADP's $650,000 price couldn't be changed.

"These were the terms of the contract approved by our board," she said.

Many governments, utilities, businesses and other organizations have fretted for years about possible computer glitches when the date changes from 1999 to 2000. Some computers might misread the 2000 as 1900, fouling date-sensitive calculations or causing some systems to crash.

County Y2K efforts

Baltimore County has spent $9 million since 1996 on Y2K upgrades, a figure that doesn't include the school system, public library or community colleges. The county has tested 45 critical areas, including the 911 emergency dispatch system, inmate tracking, tax collection and payroll. Each was declared ready in July.

"We didn't leave any systems that were unfixed," said Tom Iler, the county's information technology director.

Money to pay for the ADP contract -- which will run until June 30, 2001 -- will come from the school system's operating budget, Churchill said. The issue will probably be discussed at a budget and audit committee meeting today.

The Baltimore County Council approves the school budget each year, but school board members decide how the money is spent. School officials don't want to ask the council for more money, said Council Chairman Kevin B. Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Randallstown Democrat.

"They don't want to come before the council, because then they would be subject to questioning on the issue," he said.

Members seem confused

Even after they received letters last week updating the payroll situation, Kamenetz and other council members seemed confused.

"It doesn't make much sense to me either, but I'm not privy to the terms of the contract," said Kamenetz. Oddly, school board members didn't receive a letter.

Board President Donald L. Arnold had received no information before yesterday about the decision to continue the contract with ADP and pay the full $650,000. Arnold said he assumed payroll computers were operating and that the school system was off the hook for the total amount.

Within the past year, an auditing firm criticized the school system for lacking a payroll contingency plan. That's evidence, school officials say, that a backup payroll plan was needed regardless of Y2K.

"Bottom line," said Charles A. Herndon, the schools spokesman, "we have to have a backup in place."

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