Education officials are scratching their noggins why Gov. Doug Ducey, the self-proclaimed and widely heralded “Education Governor,” would chop every penny of funding for the computer system that makes sure students get counted and teachers paid accurately and on time.
The move means the state will be unable to send checks to schools, officials warn. That means no teachers get paid, and that may happen before the fiscal year runs out on June 30.
The governor's office characterized the disagreement more like part of a routine budget process and not as cause for alarm.
“The governor wants to make sure people get their paychecks,” Ducey's spokesman, Daniel Scarpinato, said. “He’s not going to sign a budget that doesn’t do that.”
He added that the governor never planned to scrap the IT system, but wanted to assure lawmakers they were getting their full money’s worth. Ducey has been saying for weeks that the project will be funded and move forward, Scarpinato said.
But Arizona Department of Education spokesman Stefan Swiat said agency staff and members of the governor’s team met Friday, with little progress.
“The Superintendent of Public Instruction and her staff have still not received any assurances that their IT funding will be restored from the governor's office,” Swiat reported this week.
Ducey won widespread praise after his budget announcement in January, in which he promised to plough millions of new dollars into K-12 schooling and give teachers long-awaited raises.
Then he told the education department that the next state budget would not cover the $17. 6 million request to continue rolling out its backbone software system. Ducey’s proposed budget red-lined the system.
State Schools Superintendent Diane Douglas countered by telling the governor’s office, the public and state lawmakers that it was the biggest issue she’d faced in her position.
“It would be like everyone’s online banking ATM’s would work, but the central bank where we keep all the money would be unable to get them their money,” Douglas suggested in a talking points memo.
She was referring to AELAS, the Arizona Education and Learning Accountability System. That system is the umbrella for all the state does to track students, payroll, and quality of instruction.
Without it, the department warned, teachers won’t get paid. At all.
Arizona has committed to AELAS, which replaced 1990s technology and paper bookkeeping. The state authorized the new system in 2012 and spent $38 million developing it. It’s still a work in progress. Completion is scheduled for 2020.
That sounds like a long time and lot of money. It takes a small army of 130 consultants to make sure everything moves without a hitch. And computer upgrades have plagued many public agencies in the past with big overruns and delays.
“These IT systems are very complicated. Everybody wants to dig in deeper into the numbers,” Scarpinato said. “Here, as with any IT project, everybody wants clarity as to the full cost and full build-out of this project, but at the end of the day, it’s the Governor’s priority to fund it.”
Politicians don’t typically like projects with long timelines and lots of zeros, especially when they are invisible, like an IT admin system. Complicating the Department of Education's predicament, the agency is more independent than other state agencies, so the details of the project are more opaque to state budget planners.
Politicians tend to like to cut ribbons and open bridges, not fill potholes. AELAS might be the education equivalent of a maintenance crew.
That crew oversees $5 billion in state education funding, plus another $1 billion in federal grants. It counts every head in student enrollment and dispenses checks quickly and accurately to the schools.
Through efficiencies, AELAS saves the state $40 million a year and was recognized for innovation, Swiat said.
A full month has passed since Ducey’s office proposed pulling the plug.
Since then, efforts to stage high-level talks have stalled and the state education department says it remains in the dark why AELAS is headed for the cutting room floor.
Events may be outpacing the languid pace of state bureaucracy.
Last week, Swiat said, two contract computer programmers quit working on AELAS to find greener, or at least more reliably green, pastures elsewhere.
A zeroed-out budget, job security does not make. So while it may not be the lifeboats on the Titanic just yet, Swiat fears more software experts will follow their colleagues over the side.
And that could have consequences sooner rather than later. The education department usually takes six to eight weeks to post new positions and interview, vet and hire employees. Earlier this month Intel Corp. announced it would be investing $7 billion in its Chandler plant, hiring another 3,000 people there.
It’s a good time to be a techie in Arizona. Unless your whole project faces mothballing.
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“If this isn’t resolved in the near future, we will see more and more people go,” Swiat said.
The state would have to fall back on legacy programs, the ones still being replaced.
“You’re talking about rolling the dice on 1990’s technology,” Swiat said, adding that if enough contractors leave, the state may not be able to track students and pay schools before the budget money runs out, Swiat said.