Critical hardware had failed numerous times. Flawed data collected over decades proved difficult to clean up and input into the new system. Payroll clerks complained that training had fallen far short -- more than 60 schools didn't have a single staff member who'd received any training.
Still, consultants hired to implement the system urged the district to proceed as scheduled in early January 2007. Three days before the system was to begin, they urged the district in a report to "Go! Proceed . . . and go-live on January 1!"
Go live they did, plunging the district into a crisis from which it is only now emerging. Over the course of last year, taxpayers overpaid an estimated $53 million to some 36,000 teachers and others, while thousands more went underpaid or not paid at all for months.
A review of documents and interviews with current and former officials about the yearlong crisis shed light on fundamental problems that plagued the district and prevented it from solving the fiasco faster. Dysfunctional management and internal power struggles allowed the project to go forward with no one fully in charge and hampered the district's ability to mount an effective response when serious problems arose. Years of shoddy record-keeping and strangely complex union contracts made answering basic questions -- including how much people should be paid and what jobs they worked -- almost impossible.
The debacle has left teachers and other staff embittered. In one case last fall, the new system inexplicably dropped math coach Mary Weiss from the rolls. Weiss, 56, did not receive a paycheck for three consecutive months, forcing her to borrow money from family members and accept advances from the district.
"It has been an absolute nightmare," said Weiss, who has worked for L.A. Unified for 32 years. "It has affected my work, my personal life -- everything. I would wake up in the morning with this sense of doom and dread, and just cry.
"All they could tell me was that the computer didn't recognize me anymore."
Supt. David L. Brewer oversaw the district's clumsy recovery effort. It has taken a year to stabilize the system. The ordeal has weakened the superintendent, opening him to criticism that he has been ineffective.
"We were not ready to go live with this system, but we didn't have the internal expertise to know that," Brewer said in a recent interview.
In the end, the cost of repairs and delays is expected to top $35 million.
The district's past made a mess of its future.
For decades, L.A. Unified has negotiated complicated labor agreements with several unions that represent the district's roughly 95,000 teachers, principals, custodians, bus drivers and others. Each new contract -- especially those for teachers -- layered on more Byzantine requirements about salary scales, work rules and job assignments. (There are, for example, 1,150 categories of pay an employee might receive for various assignments, reimbursements or bonuses.)
District departments, meanwhile, operated in isolation, storing salary and job-assignment information in dozens of separate databases.
Around it all, the district had cobbled together a wildly inefficient process for paying its employees, a process that made thousands of mistakes each month.
Any new payroll system promised to bring the district into the modern business age. But to do so, it would have to deal with this legacy.
In 2004, school district officials decided to upgrade their payroll system as part of a wider technology project. They selected software programs from the German company SAP, and the district awarded Deloitte Consulting -- an arm of the international firm Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu -- a $55-million contract to tailor the software to the district's needs.
District officials knew that school districts in San Bernardino, Oklahoma City, Minneapolis and elsewhere had experienced serious problems with payroll software from SAP and other companies. The complicated system of teacher compensation in which instructors often hold multiple job assignments and get paid from various accounts almost guaranteed a bumpy transition.