The Fort Worth school board is getting ready to invest another big chunk of money in a student data system, and taxpayers have to hope this one functions better than the last one.Trustees voted 8-1 Tuesday to allow staff to start negotiating a contract with Focus School Software, a 6-year-old company based in St. Petersburg, Fla. Focus serves 650,000 students daily, and its customers include 25 school districts in Florida, according to the company's website. (www.focusschoolsoftware.com)Consultants hired to help the Fort Worth district sort through eight vendor proposals told board members that Focus ranked ahead of two other finalists after evaluations and interviews by teams that included employees who would have to work with the data system.The Focus proposal would cost about $3 million over five years.Based on recent experience, it's understandable that some trustees expressed hesitation, even after being assured that company representatives said they would be able to provide the many functions the district requested.The current student information system, called Connects, was purchased from Tyler Technologies, which also is the contractor for the district's payroll system.Transition to the new payroll system in 2009 was cumbersome and rocky and resulted in about $1.5 million in erroneous overpayments. But problems eventually diminished as training improved.Although training helped with the $4.9 million Connects student data system, its flaws continued to frustrate administrators, school staffs and parents.The new system was supposed to centralize 140 separate record databases, including class scheduling, grades and test scores for state reports, and to provide a mechanism for parents to track their children's progress.But problems kept emerging, including incorrect transcripts, which frazzled students whose college admissions were affected by class rankings; scheduling conflicts; difficulty entering immunization records; and lack of sufficient searchability when administrators needed to analyze student data.The selection of Connects wasn't done lightly. The options were carefully reviewed and questions asked, but the system didn't perform as was expected and didn't meet the district's needs for reliable, easily accessible student information.Connects remains in place until a new system comes online, but the contract with Tyler Technologies for that software will be allowed to expire, Deputy Superintendent Hank Johnson said.Trustee Carlos Vasquez, who has criticized Connects most vociferously, said Tuesday night that principals had lied in telling board members two years ago that Connects was working out. That's an unfair slap at them, given what was known at that time.But it's clear that officials have to be thorough, even skeptical, as they examine the capabilities and promises of a new system.Information presented Tuesday showed that Focus ranked slightly behind the other vendors, Skyward and Infinite Campus, on technical features but came out ahead when cost and results of a demonstration were factored in.Infinite Campus would cost $4.3 million over five years, Skyward $4 million.Sue Guthrie, a consultant and co-manager of the team responsible for selecting the new software, told trustees that districts using the products of each of the finalists had been contacted."I really, really looked to find a problem," she said of Focus. "I did not."She said teachers like the Focus system's grade book, a component of Connects that has been problematic.Superintendent Walter Dansby said a contract wouldn't be finalized before staff and two or three trustees visit Florida's Pinellas County schools to see how the system functions.Guthrie said the goal is to pilot the new system in three schools starting in March and have it ready districtwide for the 2013-14 school year.District employees probably aren't looking forward to more computer training any more than taxpayers relish making another investment on an information system so soon.If anything, this experience has demonstrated what questions administrators and trustees should be asking.