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Auditors Say Computer Report Misled School Board : Management: County education staff overstated need for $8.6-million machine, report states. Officials deny wrongdoing.

May 02, 1993|HOWARD BLUME | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Top county education officials misled the Los Angeles County Board of Education by exaggerating the need to buy an $8.6-million computer system, county auditors have concluded.

Board members had approved the purchase in 1991 after senior staff members said a new computer was necessary.

"Misleading data was included in the board's proposal" for the computer, auditors reported. "One board member stated that had the accurate information been distributed to the board, a more in-depth analysis and discussion would have been needed and a different decision may have been reached." The board member was not identified.

The Los Angeles County Office of Education released the report last week after a state Public Records Act request from The Times. The office included a written response that disputed the critical portions of the audit.

"Based on its conclusion, the audit team either did not take sufficient time or lacked adequate expertise," wrote attorney Eric Bathen, who represents the county education office. "Based on all of the information supplied to the board, the recommendation to purchase the (computer) can easily be supported."

Auditors would have reached the same conclusion had they conducted a fair review of all the documentation supplied to them, Bathen stated in the response, which was addressed to the county's auditor-controller.

The education office computer handles the payroll of every school district in the county except Los Angeles Unified, Long Beach Unified and Norwalk-La Mirada Unified. In the South Bay, those districts include Torrance Unified, Redondo Beach and Inglewood schools, among others.

Allegations of wrongdoing surrounding the computer purchase first surfaced publicly last year. Computer analyst Allen M. Weil said top administrators misled the Board of Education and asked him to provide doctored statistical information to demonstrate a need for a new computer.

Auditors submitted no opinion on Weil's accusation that he was asked to provide doctored information. County education officials denied the charge. Auditors did find, however, that the Board of Education received "misleading data" that overstated the shortcomings of the old computer's processor.

The processor is the part of the computer that performs commands and computations. When the processor is at 100% of capacity, the computer delays lower-priority jobs.

Auditors took issue with assertions that on the old computer "the average daily processor utilization was at 90%" and peaked "at 100% or more for periods of up to six hours" a day.

Using Weil's data, auditors concluded that the average actually ranged from 54% to 72% over the last two years the old computer was used. Weil contended that the average was less than 60% at the time officials first informed the board that the processor was at 90% capacity.

The audit noted that officials responsible for the reports said they could not recall exactly where they obtained the figures for the proposal to the board. "They stated that the figures came from 'Operations' but could not locate the supporting documentation," auditors wrote. "In addition, (they) admitted that 'some of the statements could have been worded better.' "

The audit report does not name the three education office employees implicated by Weil, but they are named in materials Weil submitted to investigators. The three are Calvin Hall, assistant superintendent of business; Jay Stevens, director of networks and information services, and James Magill, assistant to Stevens. All have denied any wrongdoing.

Magill helped prepare computer reports. He reported to Stevens, who was directly responsible for the final text of reports to the board. Stevens submitted the text and its supporting data to Hall, his superior. Weil's job included generating data used by the three.

In interviews prior to the release of the audit, Hall conceded that small portions of some board reports were potentially misleading because they incorrectly implied that the old computer was operating at full capacity every day.

In preparing the report, some clarifying information was omitted about how frequently the old computer was overtaxed, Hall said. "Evidently, when it got typed, it just got on the wrong way," he said.

Stevens and Magill said the 100% capacity figure was not meant to be taken literally, as Weil claims.

"The essential argument was that we weren't completing our payroll processing" during the time period available, Stevens said. "Our speed of processing and all things that relate to processing were not adequate or fast enough."

Data processing is a main function of the county education office in Downey. The office also develops curriculum, oversees school district budgets and operates education programs for disabled children, wards of the juvenile court and other special groups.

Board of Education member Michaelene D. Wagner said she doesn't believe she was intentionally misled about the computer purchase.

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