Official accuses ICS of abuses; Computer expert claims consultant overcharges schools

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A high-ranking Baltimore schools computer expert has complained to the top school official that a consultant is charging too much on a multimillion-dollar technology project.

The assertions by network engineer Richard A. Morales raise new questions about a school contract that is under scrutiny by internal and outside auditors since it doubled in costs within a year.

Morales detailed his concerns in a resignation letter June 6 to city education chief Robert Booker that has been widely distributed in the school system and forwarded to the mayor and other city officials. Booker met with Morales and persuaded him to stay on the job, school officials say.

In his two-page letter to Booker, Morales also contends that the president of the computer consulting firm and the project manager have tried to stop staff from talking to the school auditors.

The consultant, Information Control Systems, strongly denies that the contract costs too much. "If anything, we have underbilled," said ICS President Garland O. Williamson. "I have no idea what motivated him to write that letter to Dr. Booker. Some of this is ludicrous. It's slanderous."

School board President J. Tyson Tildon promised that the complaints were "being looked into" but declined further comment. Booker could not be reached yesterday.

Booker's successor, Carmen V. Russo, said she had not seen the letter but plans to promptly review the school technology operations. Russo, who will take over running the 103,000-student system July 5, has been in charge of school improvement and technology as an associate superintendent in Broward County, Fla. "I've been told I have to look into it carefully," she said yesterday, "and I will."

Morales declined to comment yesterday, saying only that he had rescinded his resignation Monday.

A sensitive time

His allegations come at a sensitive time for the city school system, which is working to tighten financial controls after being embarrassed less than a month ago by two lucrative, no-bid consulting deals stemming from a major energy savings program. Those revelations led to a separate audit, the resignation of the chief financial officer and the one-month suspension of the business officer.

Morales wrote that he could "no longer tolerate" the way in which ICS is running the technology project.

"They have threatened people's job status and overinflated their worth as contractors to the school system," Morales wrote Booker. "The amount of monies paid for the services received is disproportional. The overall attitude of this group of people is profoundly arrogant."

Antiquated system

For nearly two years, Morales has been intimately involved in the city schools' efforts to modernize their antiquated computer systems. He redesigned a critical piece of the hardware network before joining ICS on the technology project last summer. In May, he became a top school employee in the 70-member technology department.

The school board hired ICS, a local computer company, for $5.2 million to be its technology consultant last year. ICS won an 18-month contract to make sure there would be working computer systems to track students, issue paychecks and buy supplies, all of which required reams of paperwork in the past.

But the costs quickly soared. Within eight months, the ICS consultants wanted an additional $1.5 million for more work. Two months later, they brought in a new bill for $750,000. By April, the contract had reached $11.4 million.

School officials quietly paid the bills to cover subcontracting, extra services and a burgeoning number of computer technicians on temporary visas whose work got billed at rates from $65 to $140 an hour. It wasn't until April that the contract was revised to increase controls over how the money was spent.

Williamson has blamed the higher costs partly on the school system's underestimate of the work needed to avert a Y2K computer crash. ICS also took on additional duties, designing the schools' Web page and building a data warehouse, which weren't in the original contract.

Though the school system has a technology department, it was ICS' project manager, Donald Hall, who became the schools' "chief technology officer." In his dual roles as consultant and school department head, Hall has directed most of the work that resulted in the spending increases.

The cost overruns prompted state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick to order a financial review in late April and the school system to conduct an audit. Grasmick acknowledges general satisfaction with ICS' work.

In his letter, Morales contends that Williamson and Hall had instructed the staff not to talk to the auditors without their approval. Hall issued a May 16 memo, obtained by The Sun, ordering the entire technology department to refer any requests from auditors to him.

"I believe their methodologies are designed to keep this system under their influence for as long as possible," Morales wrote, "and then when the money is gone, they will move on and simply say that they did everything they could for those 'poor misguided' people."

Morales' salary is an example of the "disproportional" rates he says ICS is charging. His work was billed at $130 an hour, documents show, yet he was paid less than a third of that rate. He received a raise when he went to work for the school system for $91,600 a year.

'Tough taskmaster'

Much of his letter complains about Hall's managerial style. Morales describes Hall as an autocrat who has made offensive comments in the office and been abusive to several school employees.

Hall vehemently denied the accusations, saying no one has made such a claim against him in his 35-year career

"That's baloney," he said. "I don't know what Richard is talking about. If he was a man, he would come sit down with me, which he hasn't."

Williamson was outspoken in his defense of Hall. "Don is a very tough taskmaster," he said. "That is what the school system needs."

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