There's an old "Far Side" cartoon that shows a lecture hall filled with seated dinosaurs. Diagrams fill the blackboard, and a huge reptile is speaking into the microphone at the podium. "The picture's pretty bleak, gentlemen," he says. "The world's climates are changing, the mammals are taking over, and we all have a brain about the size of a walnut." It's an image of doomed and clueless gigantism that will resonate with anyone who read Times staff writer Joel Rubin's recent reconstruction of the sprawling Los Angeles Unified School District's great payroll fiasco.
In the long catalog of contemporary America's bureaucratic debacles, the chronically dysfunctional LAUSD probably deserves a page of its own, and its appalling payroll screw-up surely belongs at the top of the entry. The district's failures in this matter are so categorical that they seem like black comedy -- until you pause to recall that 712,000 of our children are hostage to these clowns' institutional incompetence.
As Rubin reported, the LAUSD -- the nation's second-largest school district -- employs about 95,000 teachers, principals, custodians, bus drivers and others. Their pay is divided into an astonishing 1,150 categories, which is roughly one for every 82 employees. (Don't ask how that happened.) Four years ago, the district decided that it needed to join the modern world and adopt a new, computerized pay system. Naturally, it purchased a German program that had performed miserably everywhere else it had been tried. (Hey, "nobody's perfect" is virtually the LAUSD's motto.)
The district also gave Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu a $55-million contract to help it customize and install the new software. (The history of the LAUSD and its consultants is a whole other story, but suffice it to say that the district's officials seem to wander through the world like a dazed flock of sheep, begging to be shorn.)
The new payroll system repeatedly failed when it was tested. Those involved knew the system's database was badly flawed. Payroll clerks were inadequately trained; some weren't trained at all.
Still, prodded by its high-priced consultants, the district rolled the new system out at the first of last year. Week after week, month after month of disaster ensued.
As The Times reported, "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." (Stop and think what one missed paycheck would mean to your household's well-being, let alone three or four in a row. Think further about what kind of people let those working under their supervision go unpaid, then ask whether you want that sort of person in charge of something complicated -- like education.)
Seven months into the crisis, the district's elected school board members finally rose from their tombs and ordered Supt. David L. Brewer and his staff to come up with "a recovery plan." A good part of that seems to involve paying lawyers $700,000 to sue Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu. (Count on an expensive countersuit.)
Meanwhile, the board has handed out $13.5 million to the 10 new consulting firms the district says it needs to fix the system, which more than a year later still isn't entirely reliable. The total cost of fixing it is likely to exceed $35 million.
OK, if you've stuck with this wretched tale this long, you've by now asked yourself the logical questions: Who's responsible for this mess? Who did they fire?
The answer to both questions is: Nobody -- and that's the crux of the issue, and the reason the LAUSD is a civic disgrace. That's not to say it doesn't have thousands of talented, resourceful teachers and principals whose dedication to their pupils is positively heroic. In fact, you have to go back to the Battle of the Somme to find good troops as badly led as these people are.
What Rubin found is that nobody was in charge of the payroll project; it was handed from one indifferent set of bureaucratic hands to another with no result. Meanwhile, Brewer -- who's ostensibly in charge -- responded to the compounding crisis with the passionate alacrity of a root vegetable.
He should resign. If he doesn't, the board should buy out the balance of his fat contract and send him home.
The last section of Brewer's biography on the district's website informs us that, in addition to the LAUSD's $7.5-billion budget, "he also oversees the largest public works project in the United States, a $19.3-billion voter-approved transformation to build new schools and improve existing facilities to reduce overcrowding throughout the district."
Now why does that make you shiver?