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Schools' payroll system on line

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A new payroll system - part of a finance software package purchased by the Baltimore County school system - is expected to print checks for the first time today, more than a year behind schedule.

The entire project was budgeted at $4.8 million in 1997 but could cost taxpayers as much as $6 million, including $650,000 in emergency add-on expenses.

After months of delays and at least four false starts, the computerized payroll system is running smoothly, said Robin Churchill, the school system's chief financial officer, who oversees budget, facilities and technology.

"It's in production as we speak," she said, referring to recent test runs. "We've been monitoring the results that come out very closely to make sure they are accurate."

Although two other programs designed by American Management Systems - one for accounting, the other for budgeting - have been used by the school system successfully for a year or more, the payroll program has been slow to start, and has become a source of concern for the County Council and the Board of Education.

In December, when delays forced school officials to pay $650,000 for backup payroll services, council members were quick to criticize.

School board members said they were caught off guard, and scrambled to get the project back on track.

Administrators miscalculated how long it would take to install the complex payroll software from the start.

John M. Markowski, the school system's former chief financial officer set start-up for July 1, 1999 - more than a year ago. He says he overestimated the amount of support his staff would get from AMS, based in Fairfax, Va.

AMS "had more work than it knew what to do with" getting other clients ready for Y2K, said Markowski. "Frankly, it was pretty overwhelming. ... We got minimal support."

Markowski now works for Harford County schools.

AMS spokeswoman Anne Burt disputed Markowski's account of the project's early days, describing AMS consultants as "very committed."

"AMS is proud to have partnered with the district to bring their vision to reality," she said.

After Markowski left, supervision of the project fell to William Rust, the school system's former director of technology.

Rust pushed back the deadline and promised the school board that the payroll program would be operating before Jan. 1.

But when start-up dates in November and December last year slipped by, and with the year 2000 computer scare looming, school officials rushed to upgrade an existing payroll system by Westinghouse to ensure it would be Y2K-compliant.

In the end, the school board entered into a last-minute, no-bid contract with ADP Inc. of Owings Mills to produce paychecks for 17,000 employees in case the Westinghouse system faltered. The backup plan cost taxpayers $650,000, though ADP did not print any checks. (The ADP backup could still be used in case of an emergency.)

Churchill, who was Rust's boss, says she never intended her staff to have the payroll system up and running before spring 2000. She blames recent delays on the Y2K crunch, which diverted staff, and a search for perfection.

"We have to make sure [the checks] are accurate because people use them to pay the rent and buy food," said Churchill. "Rather than rush the date, we decided to make sure [the checks] are accurate."

Former school board President Dunbar Brooks, who signed the contract with AMS in 1997, says the payroll portion of the project worried him.

"Every time we looked at what was going on, there was some new disaster," he said. "First it seemed to be a hardware issue, then there was a question if the vendor could be added to the contract. And then there was the changes of staff and superintendents. We had reports that things were going well when in fact we weren't getting the full story."

Brooks said he is pleased the payroll program is finally ready.

"The board didn't want to micromanage," he said. "All we wanted to do was get it implemented because we had nothing, and we couldn't start over."

School system employees who have questions about their paychecks can call 410-666-9465 today, tomorrow and Tuesday.

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