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Report: Early L.A. Unified data system issues ignored by top administrators

File: Jefferson High School students walk out of classes to stage a protest in August. They complained a new scheduling system had students taking classes they've already completed or don't need to complete graduation requirements.
File: Jefferson High School students walk out of classes to stage a protest in August. They complained a new scheduling system had students taking classes they've already completed or don't need to complete graduation requirements.
Benjamin Brayfield/KPCC

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Los Angeles Unified administrators, charged with ensuring a new district data system for 650,000 students worked as it should, ignored warnings that the system wasn’t ready to launch, an independent consultant group concluded in a report released Thursday.

The consultants also expressed doubts that the current district team working to fix the problems will be able to repair the troubled data system known as MiSiS.

A copy of the seven-page report was obtained by KPCC before a scheduled Thursday afternoon release.

Although several documents indicated early problems with the data system, the district's project team leadership gave the go-ahead for its launch nonetheless, the report prepared by The Viramontes Group Inc. said. 

“There were not any indicators from project team signifying a 'No Go' decision," the report states.

The system's problems have led to a litany of issues, including problems with class scheduling and student attendance.

In the latest of the troubles, Superintendent Ramon Cortines told principals and teachers in a letter Wednesday that the district has delayed issuing elementary school report cards for a week, to Nov. 14. He attributed the problem to continuing challenges with MiSiS and an unexpected outage.

Cortines notified parents in a Wednesday letter. "I apologize for the delay of your student's grades right before parent-teacher conferences. Be assured that your teachers and principals are doing everything possible to meet student needs despite the technology challenges they have recently encountered."

The district said in a news release that the data system has required "fine-tuning, as with any new program." The "glitches have affected less than 1 percent of students overall," the district said.

Officials acknowledged continuing problems with scheduling and said the system has been "slower than expected." Because of continuing snags, teachers have been asked to take attendance offline for now.

The consultant group's report does not name the L.A. Unified officials who failed to heed the warnings of trouble with the new data system. But the top technology officer overseeing the project, Ron Chandler, resigned last week after four years with the district.

The same week, the district fired an outside consultant in charge of the project, Bria Jones, who was compensated at $135 an hour and was overpaid, according to the district's inspector general.

Both Chandler and Jones reported ultimately to former Superintendent John Deasy, who resigned in early October after mounting issues with the data system, known as MiSiS, a botched rollout of a program to place iPads in the hands of all L.A. Unified students, and strained relations with the school board that hired him.

School board member Tamar Galatzan said Deasy’s role in the green lighting of the flawed system should be laid out in a more thorough report from the district's inspector general due out later this month. 

"The board and the superintendent want to hold people responsible who messed this up," Galatzan said. "But also, we have to understand that we’re in the middle of dealing with this crisis and we also need to move forward and focus attention on that."

Board member Monica Ratliff agreed that those responsible should be held to account, but she suggested the problem may run deeper.

"My takeaway from this report is that we need to change the culture around here so that when people realize that something is not working, they say something, really loud, and they make sure it doesn’t go forward," she said. "Because there’s absolutely no reason why this project should have gone forward in light of how many problems were apparent during its production."

In expressing skepticism that the district has the ability to fix MiSiS, the consultant group said:  “The current project management structure and staffing models are not adequate for project completion.”

“There is lack of evidence that a data conversion and integrity plan exists,” according to the consultant group.

L.A. Unified has managed student data with multiple systems over the years. An inadequate transfer of student data from old computer systems to the new MiSiS system contributed to the issues that include students assigned to wrong classes and courses they had already taken.

The data system is also producing incorrect student transcripts, causing problems for 12th-graders who need accurate transcripts for college applications, many of them due at the end of November.

“The MiSiS implementation has several occurrences of duplicate students, missing students, scheduling inconsistencies, and coding irregularities,” the report said, and that “could be catastrophic to the future of a student in the form of scholarships, college entrance and grade progression.”

School personnel such as clerks and teachers who would ultimately be responsible for entering data and using the system weren’t consulted in its development, the report said.

“There appeared to be significant lack of input from the community of personnel that would eventually use the applications. Without dedicated stakeholder involvement, the requirements specifications lack clarity and specification for development.”

The report was discussed in a closed-door meeting Thursday between L.A. Unified’s board and Superintendent Cortines. 

The cost of fixing the broken data system has been mounting.

Last month, L.A. Unified’s school board approved $3.6 million for the purchase of 3,340 computers to be sent to schools to use MiSiS. Old desktop computers would not run the data system.

At the same meeting, board members approved $1.1 million to fix scheduling problems caused by the data system at Jefferson High School after a judge said the issues there were particularly serious.

The board also approved spending $15,000 to $25,000 a day to hire retired educators who are checking student transcripts one by one for accuracy.

Schools began reporting problems with the data system in July, and the issues proved widespread. An independent study found that 80 percent of district campuses had problems with MiSiS properly tracking special education data.

The report praised the dedication and time spent by current employees to fix the data system’s problems.

“The status room has been turned into a situation/war room to reflect current schedules, issue resolution and system status. The Help Desk has been augmented with additional resources and tiered to handle traffic."

As of Thursday, the district's website listed over 200 "known issues" with the MiSiS system.

This story has been updated.