Sorry to hear that Debian isn't working for you. And I did read your 'rant'.
I was thinking perhaps you could go for something with a little more to offer by way of hardware detection.
Mint - Debian Edition
All the Minty goodness, backed by the rolling release of Debian Testing.
You may user Gentoo with -mtune=generic flag, make a squashfs image and install in all boxes.
Engage a RH account rep to help you with running some numbers. Managers do like it when you show up prepared to tell them what they'll get for their money, and how much money that is. They may not buy it, but they will appreciate that you're not wasting their time.
If you have to do it without a significant budget, have a look at the g4l project on SourceForge. It won't help you with choosing your distro and setting up your standard configuration, but it could help a lot with deployment/redeployment. It's basically a network-based imaging solution, and it's maintained by a very responsive community college instructor who uses it himself for both administrative and academic/lab scenarios. You could, for instance, fairly easily set up a situation where users have automount home folders and a way that they can readily reimage their machine back to the baseline when they hose it up, without blowing away their personal stuff.