The cost of L.A. Unified's digital student tracking system rises to $189 million

About two years ago, the Los Angeles Unified School District unveiled its new student records system. The rollout was widely described as disastrous.

Students were assigned to the wrong classes or none at all for weeks, college applicants worried they wouldn't get accurate transcripts to schools in time and the district identified hundreds of technological problems.

Last week, the school board approved $40.3 million for what the technology division says will be the last of six large chunks of bond money needed to fix the problems. The money will be used to incorporate independent charter schools into the system, allow schools to customize their reports and give parents access.

That brings the district's total spending on the program to $189 million since 2013. 

My Integrated Student Information System, or MISIS, was supposed to solve L.A. Unified's need for a districtwide records system, which a consent decree required following a federal class-action lawsuit on behalf of special education students. It claimed that these students were sometimes harmed because the district's disorganized records system lost track of their needs. 

The district initially approved $29.7 million for the project at a June 2013 board meeting -- it was one of 309 "school facilities improvement projects" greenlighted at the time.

But after the initial problems, the information technology department asked for an additional $15.7 million in 2014 and $88.1 million last year in bond funding. There's been more in general fund allocations.

L.A. Unified adopted the code for the records system from Fresno Unified School District's system. In late 2012, the district's Internet technology officer said that records system would be cheaper to maintain than the other integrated software system that the district had spent years and more than $100 million working on.

In 2013, the district anticipated it would complete the project by December 2014.

But Fresno is a much smaller district, and it has been extremely expensive to tailor the system to suit the needs of L.A. Unified, said Diane Pappas, who has overseen the records system's recovery project since October 2014.

"Taking a system from Fresno and thinking you could scale it for L.A. Unified was a complete mistake," Pappas said. "We inherited a system that was ... not designed to be scalable and we’ve been rebuilding it ever since.”

By the start of this school year, the system was working much better than it had before — but it still didn't fully comply with the consent decree that required the district to incorporate all schools, including charters, into an integrated system.

This last push of bond funding will finish the project, Pappas said. 

The spending isn't over yet. It'll cost the district about $12 million in general fund dollars to maintain the records system every year, from 2018 to 2019 onward, Pappas said. That expenditure would include a vendor to oversee the system, and it's an estimate based on how much it costs to maintain a different district system, which is about the same size as My Integrated Student Information System. 

During last week's school board meeting, board member Monica Ratliff wondered aloud whether anyone had thought about where that $12 million was going to come from every year.

"It's problematic in my view because $12 million is a lot of money," Ratliff said in an interview. She didn't realize that even after the fixes were completed, the records system would still require spending that much in maintenance every year.

Reach Sonali Kohli at Sonali.Kohli@latimes.com or on Twitter @Sonali_Kohli.

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