Report links SESIS struggles and DOE's contracting practices

The special education data system that has teachers and parents frustrated carries a $79 million price tag — and wasn’t even tailor-made for the city schools.

That’s according to a report by Ruth Ford and Adrienne Day about the Department of Education’s contracting practices in the current issue of City Limits, the magazine of the nonprofit Community Service Society of New York.

The year-old Special Education Student Information System, or SESIS, was meant to make information about students with disabilities more accessible. But its rollout has been bumpy, with school staff and union officials complaining that using the system is burdensome.

Tracing SESIS’s origins, the City Limits report characterizes the system as “neither an unbridled success nor a total failure” but rather a symptom of the DOE’s reliance on private contractors to solve local problems — a practice that DOE officials said could soon see greater quality control.

From the article:

The DOE put out a request for proposals for a new system and got several bids. The Virginia-based consulting company Maximus won the contract. Maximus’ motto is “Helping government serve the people,” but, as with all corporations, its bottom line is to help its shareholders. A February 2009 earnings conference call made clear that where others see policy or politics, Maximus (and probably other consultants) sees profit. “Our business today stands well-positioned to benefit in the long run from greater demand for our services due to the economic slowdown and new legislation that calls for expansion of existing programs. This includes increased funding through the proposed $800 billion-plus stimulus plan,” Richard Montoni, Maximus’ CEO, said on the call.  … Montoni’s monologue revealed a company in mid-pivot, shifting from a “revmax” business model—identifying and claiming reimbursable federal dollars for state and local governments—to a provider of IT services like SESIS. And SESIS, as the conference call revealed, is simply a repurposing of an existing software package called TIENET—a system that Maximus had already implemented in the Chicago school system. Montoni reassured an anxious analyst: “Naturally, we’ll have to interface it with the systems of New York City, and we’ll have to train the users in New York City on how to use it. But it should not be viewed as a custom-build situation.” Just as when [Alvarez & Marsal, the firm involved in a midyear busing debacle in 2007] came into town riding high on projects in St. Louis and New Orleans, SESIS was a case of a consultant getting big bucks to map a product created for a different (smaller) school system onto New York’s unique education superstructure.

The article also notes that a former special education executive at the DOE got special permission, and a hefty consulting fee, to help the city get SESIS online:

One of the early champions of SESIS was Linda Wernikoff, who in June 2009 retired from her job as the city’s top special-ed official, only to be rehired by the Fund for Public Schools as a DOE consultant on SESIS less than a year later. New York City’s Conflict of Interest Board signed off on a wavier for her rehire at $1,000 per day—on top of her DOE pension. (Wernikoff declined to comment for this story.)

And City Limits also reports that SESIS’s $79 million price tag could balloon because of clauses in its contract, and the city would be without recourse because has not rolled out a required “Electronic Performance Evaluation Process” for its private vendors:

Chances are that SESIS, along with many other IT contracts the city is currently engaged in, will end up costing taxpayers more than its originally stated “base” rate. City Limits obtained a copy of the SESIS contract — which, at about the thickness of The Collected Dialogues of Plato and similarly dense, is a pamphlet compared with many other such contracts — and there are several places in which it is clear that Maximus can bill the city many million dollars more under a so-called renewal of contract and also under something called a change order — which effectively renders the originally agreed-upon price of the contract obsolete. … Meanwhile, major oversight and accountability issues loom. According to the DOE’s Procurement Policy and Procedures Manual, approved by the Panel for Education Policy, the board that oversees the DOE, in January 2010, the DOE is required to establish a process for evaluating and documenting the performance of its vendors. But no such system exists yet. Barbara Morgan, a spokeswoman for the DOE, says, “A prototype system has been developed and will be rolled out in the near future to capture this data.”