© 2024 WFAE

Mailing Address:
8801 J.M. Keynes Dr. Ste. 91
Charlotte NC 28262
Tax ID: 56-1803808
90.7 Charlotte 93.7 Southern Pines 90.3 Hickory 106.1 Laurinburg
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

CMS inches toward payroll conversion, vowing to avoid Gaston’s mistakes

About a dozen Gaston County teachers lined up with signs before Monday's school board meeting to demand answers and solutions to payroll problems.
Ann Doss Helms
Gaston County employees repeatedly protested as payroll problems dragged on for more than a year.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board Tuesday approved a $16.5 million contract to begin converting its payroll and business systems to Oracle Cloud.

That’s the same system Gaston County Schools used in its disastrous conversion that began two years ago, with employees facing more than a year of inaccurate or missing paychecks, errors in retirement payments and other errors.

CMS Chief Financial Officer Kelly Kluttz
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools
CMS Chief Financial Officer Kelly Kluttz

But CMS officials say they’ve learned from Gaston’s mistakes. CMS Chief Financial Officer Kelly Kluttz summarized the CMS approach as “go slow and get this right.” The district hopes to fully convert its payroll and business systems in January 2027.

A lot is at stake, as Gaston County learned when employees protested, sued and left the district. And with 19,000 employees, CMS is almost four times the size of Gaston schools.

Doing nothing is not an option; the state is pushing for all districts to replace outdated business systems. CMS now uses a 23-year-old Lawson system that will “sunset” in 2027, Kluttz said.

“We have difficulties with our payroll because our system is not modern,” she said. “There’s lots of room for error when you’re operating on a 23-year-old system.”

Before Tuesday’s vote, three CMS officials who will oversee the conversion talked to WFAE about the reasons they think they can avoid Gaston County’s problems.

Different vendor

The CMS contract is with AST, a company that will adapt Oracle to the district’s needs. Gaston County worked with CherryRoad Technologies, which at the time was the only company approved by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction to handle the Oracle conversion.

Cabarrus County Schools was scheduled to convert its system around the same time as Gaston. Kluttz and CMS Chief Human Resources Office Kecia Coln were then working for Cabarrus schools. But that district concluded it wouldn’t work with CherryRoad, which didn't have K-12 experience, she said.

Coln became Gaston County’s HR director in June 2022, six months after the district launched the Oracle system, “and had to clean up a lot of that stuff,” Kluttz said.

Kluttz said AST has experience setting up Oracle for school districts.

More support

One thing that tripped up Gaston schools, Kluttz says, were periodic updates of the operating system like those people get on iPhones. She says Gaston wasn’t prepared for those and updates would introduce new problems as Gaston was trying to fix existing ones.

The AST contract includes two years of managed service, and the company is prepared to help CMS handle updates, Kluttz said.

More time

The first thing CMS employees will notice in preparation for the conversion is a new system for reporting their time. The district currently uses three different systems for different types of employees. This summer all will convert to Red Rover, a platform designed for schools.

But most of the work will happen behind the scenes, as CMS and AST set up the bigger system and begin running it parallel to the existing one. Kluttz says employees won’t rely on the new system until CMS has had at least three payrolls run with 99% accuracy.

“This district will not go live until we know it is completely accurate,” she said.

That approach isn’t cheap. The $16.5 million contract is the first installment in what’s expected to be a $33 million tab spread over four years. The state has promised $5 million, and Kluttz says the district will ask for more while adding money from other sources.

Sign up for our Education Newsletter

Select Your Email Format

Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.