Good money after bad

Miller and Barnes spent millions failing to build a statewide student database. Now, Sonny's giving it a try.

Let's say the person you hired a few years back to run your business decided he was the perfect guy to develop a new computer system. Then, millions of dollars later, he found it was harder than it looked and had to abandon it.

Then, a new manager spent nearly as much money on a different system. But nobody seemed to like that one either.

Would you be enthusiastic when the next manager promised to achieve exactly what the last manager had promised?

Probably not. Now, you know how technology experts at school systems across the state of Georgia feel.

Under then-Gov. Zell Miller, the state Education Department spent tens of millions on a statewide student information system intended to track data like test scores and attendance, as well as employee and financial information. Most of Georgia's 180 school systems use technology that can't communicate with other districts, so the idea was a good one. The result wasn't.

Officials gave up after just 18 months of cost overruns and failed trials. Nobody even seems to know precisely how much the effort cost, but estimates run as high as $85 million.

Next up: Gov. Roy Barnes allocated $50 million in 2000 for his own student information system, set for completion this summer. Barnes gave the project to the State Data and Research Center, an agency he created partly for that purpose.

The project came to a halt Jan. 31, when the man who defeated Barnes, Sonny Perdue, dissolved the center by executive order. Kathy Cox, the state school superintendent elected along with Perdue, says the center's half-completed system was unruly.

Now, it's up to Bill Gambill, Cox's newly appointed deputy superintendent of technology, to get the job done. Cox hopes to have the system up and running by September 2004.

But many of the state's school system techies are skeptical. Bailey Mitchell, Forsyth County's school technology director, says it may just be time for the state to admit that technology isn't its strong suit.

"We've just never had a successful run at the Department of Education collecting data. Ever," says Mitchell, who's been active in a statewide group of technology managers who witnessed Georgia's previously botched plans.

He calls Barnes' system "utopian" in scope. Schools would've been required to collect about 1,800 pieces of information on each student. No blank fields were allowed, even if the data didn't exist.

The massive school databases would have been transmitted to the Education Department. Mitchell claims such data would have overwhelmed an agency, which already can't handle all the information it requires from local school districts.

"We're only sending the information we think they want," he says. "We're not really sure what they want, but since they don't use it anyway, we don't stir that pot."

That'll be harder to get away with next fall when the federal No Child Left Behind Act requires schools to demonstrate each student's progress. Inaccurate reports could cost schools federal funding.

Mitchell would like to see a private company with experience gathering data — and actually using it to improve education — take over the creation of a statewide system.

Cox doesn't think that's necessary.

She plans to appoint an advisory committee in April to help develop a system that works for local schools, the state and the federal government. The committee's first priority will be to address the state's own ambiguous reporting rules.

Cox is critical of Barnes' effort, but at least he set aside some money. Of the $50 million Barnes allocated for the project, there's an estimated $15 million left. And most of the money paid for updated technology and new software that school districts can still use.

Mitchell likes Cox's spirit, but he still thinks the state should throw in the towel.

"I don't want to sound like I'm dissing Kathy Cox because I'm not," says Mitchell. "But if I was in a room with her, I would say privatize it."