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Costs for building LA Unified's data system may top $200 million, but is an end in sight?

The LAUSD inspector general's report on the trouble-prone student data system called MiSiS calls for an outside party to monitor the work of district software developers.
In 2013, L.A. Unified sought to revamp its aging student data system with a $29.7 million budget. But problems quickly emerged, pushing costs up quickly.

Los Angeles Unified School Board members have approved another multi-million dollar boost to an effort to weed out problems with the district’s student data system, known as MiSiS.

With the $40.7 million board members approved last week, a team of 250 L.A. Unified employees and Microsoft contractors will start re-coding portions of MiSiS that software engineers had patched together with emergency fixes during the system’s calamitous launch in 2014.

“Because the system was in such a crisis mode, we had to take a lot of shortcuts to fix problems,” said Diane Pappas, the district’s CEO of Strategic Planning and Digital Innovation. “So we have to go back and clean up some of that work that was done.”

But the added funding won’t just be used to fix MiSiS, which schools use to track student information that ranges from the commonplace (like daily attendance) to the critical (like special education plans).

With the money, the district's team can begin developing more user-friendly enhancements to some of the system’s more “clunky” tools and spending on several related initiatives, such as creating a way for charter school administrators, who’ve spent millions on their own data systems, to upload their data to MiSiS.

In 1993, the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit against the school district in the name of Chanda Smith, a student whose records had not followed her as she moved from one L.A. Unified school to another and thus was not tested to see if she should receive special education services. As part of a settlement in that case, the district agreed to modernize its data systems and, in 2003, approved a new "Integrated Student Information System" — ISIS.

In 2013, L.A. Unified sought to revamp ISIS, launching MiSiS — which stands for "My Integrated Student Information System" — with a $29.7 million budget. But problems quickly emerged, pushing costs up quickly.

In total, L.A. Unified will now have spent more than $173.8 million to build MiSiS and roll out related projects by the time this current round of funding expires in June 2017. By 2018, district officials estimate that price tag could top $203 million — and watchdogs say it isn't clear what that money has bought the district.

"It is far from the integrated system that was promised and which schools desperately need," wrote Alan Warhaftig, a teacher and magnet program coordinator at Fairfax High School and member of the L.A. principals union's MiSiS committee.

MiSiS' rollout during the 2014-15 school year was disastrous.

During the first days of school, the system wouldn't produce accurate schedules for high school students, leaving them stuck in their auditoriums for days. Some students eventually walked out in protest. Staffers spent hours entering newly-enrolled students into the database, only to find MiSiS didn't save the information. The system also wouldn't save an accurate attendance record, leaving many parents worried MiSiS had issued unexcused absences to their student.

MiSiS' problematic launch contributed to the resignation of L.A. Unified Supt. John Deasy in October 2014 — and even after the school year was over, counselors reported MiSiS was producing inaccurate transcripts for graduating high school seniors.

There have been far fewer problems with the system this school year, though, due to what Warhaftig termed the "heroic" efforts of the district's MiSiS team.

"This was really a mess, and it took a lot of resources to get the system back on track," said Pappas, whom Deasy's replacement, Ramon Cortines, brought on to oversee the MiSiS recovery effort in October 2014.

"We're doing substantially better," Pappas added. "Performance on the system— we've got about a 99.9 percent up-time in performance; we did not have that before. We had probably one of the best school openings in the history LAUSD last August, where students were properly placed in classrooms, nobody was waiting in auditoriums."

Pappas said the district hopes that by 2018, its teams will not be actively building — or re-building — the MiSiS application. At that point, the district could hire a contractor to simply maintain the system.

Warhaftig said the system's performance has clearly improved. The question now, he said, is whether the district's MiSiS team members — who, he added, are "working as hard as it’s possible to work" — can add the functions that make the system useful to teachers and administrators.

For instance, many want the system to notify teachers and counselors if a student is cutting a lot of classes. Currently, a school employee would have to actively search MiSiS for chronically absent students.