Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ $1 Million Panic Button System Doesn’t Work

Investigative reporting by The Charlotte Observer found district officials did not run the $1.75 million investment by the school board.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ $1 Million Panic Button System Doesn’t Work

A North Carolina school district spent more than $1 million on a crisis alert system it says isn’t working properly.

Following the 2017 Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ former superintendent Clayton Wilcox urged the district to install a panic alarm system. In 2018, Mecklenburg County commissioners approved over $9 million in school security improvements, including a large portion to be used for the new system.

On Oct. 28, 2018, school violence directly affected a Charlotte-Mecklenburg school when a 16-year-old student was shot and killed at Butler High School.

The district ended up selecting Georgia-based provider Centegix, which installed its technology in 25 schools in the district over the last year, reports The Charlotte Observer. The technology allows employees to trigger an alarm by pressing a button on a card they carry with their ID badges.

On Friday, current Superintendent Earnest Winston held a press conference indicating administrators have been working with Centegix to address the problems but no solution has been found. If the problems aren’t fixed within 30 days, Winston said he will break the agreement and try to get back the $1.13 million spent so far, according to WFAE.

“We had a system that did not work well all the time and did not work at all some of the time,” Winston said. “At school, after school, we found that the system didn’t perform as promised and it did not perform consistently.”

Commissioner Pat Cotham called out CMS officials, stating if they have been aware of the problems for some time, they should have notified the public immediately.

“People accept a problem, but they don’t accept being lied to,” Cotham said. “The truth will set you free.”

Winston and CMS Police Chief Lisa Mangum said the failures have occurred only in testing, not during an actual emergency. The pair assured the failure does not mean schools have been any less safe.

Following Winston’s press conference, Centegix released a statement saying it is “diligently working with [the district] to finalize the implementation, which had a target completion later in Q1 2020.”

“Sites have been launched and are currently in a live, pilot mode,” the statement continued. “The phased deployment will continue as CMS completes the site-specific testing and the user onboarding process, which includes training for district personnel.”

Deal Raises Concerns, Points to Possible Corruption

The Observer reviewed hundreds of pages of CMS documents and interviewed eight current and former district officials and school vendors, including some with direct knowledge about the district’s bidding process for the new system. According to emails, CMS chose to equip additional schools with the system even though the technology had been installed in a handful of schools and was still not operational eight months after the bid had been awarded.

“This project is at a very critical stage, high schools are complete but they are not operational,” Amy Shire, a senior purchasing agent for CMS, wrote in a May 28, 2019, email to other administrators. “If CMS continues to move forward with this vendor, what were issues earlier in the project now appear to be risks.” 

According to the records, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, which is responsible for overseeing how the district’s money is spent, did not vote to approve a contract with Centegix. CMS administrators agreed to buy at least $1.75 million worth of equipment from the company through purchase orders, which often don’t require approval from the school board.

Two school finance and education technology experts told The Observer it is extremely unusual for a school system to spend such a large amount of money without a contract or school board approval. A contract provides a customer with more legal protection if the equipment is faulty or a company doesn’t follow through on tasks it agreed to complete.

“Not having a contract for something that large is something that is simply not done,” said school finance consultant Michael Griffith. “They could just walk away from the job tomorrow without a contract.”

The Observer discovered Wilcox and Centegix founder Daniel Dooley spoke over the phone or scheduled appointments more than a dozen times around the time CMS was considering the company’s bid. CMS typically prohibits employees from having contact with companies making bids.

The Observer also found Wilcox and Dooley had a relationship prior to the bidding process. In July 2017, Wilcox had scheduled a dinner with Dooley and a person named Suzanne. Dolley’s wife’s name is Suzanne, who is Facebook friends with Wilcox’s wife.

Additionally, The Observer’s investigative reporting found Wilcox and Dooley were scheduled to meet for three hours at CMS headquarters on Sept. 25, 2018 — one week after the deadline to submit bids.

In July, the district announced Wilcox was suspended from his job due to a personal matter.

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