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An in-depth look at our region's emerging economic, social, political and cultural identity.

CMS Dumps $237K Website After Parents Balk

CMS scrapped WeAreCMS.com but kept the color scheme from this summer's rebranding.

Last summer, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools rolled out a new look and a new website. Over winter break, after spending more than $200,000 on the new site, CMS pulled the plug, saying people didn’t like it. 

WeAreCMS.com debuted last summer as part of a marketing push designed to convey that Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is "honest, approachable and transparent," among other attributes.

But CMS Chief of Staff LaTarzja Henry said the changes actually led to complaints that the district was less transparent. People had a hard time finding specific information about things they care about -- and had learned to find on the old site.

"Student assignment was one of them," Henry said. "Before- and after-school care was one of them. Athletics, I heard, was one of them. The search on the WeAreCMS website actually proved to be very problematic."

Credit CMS
CMS Chief of Staff LaTarzja Henry

Henry had a different job when CMS launched its rebranding in the summer. So did almost everyone at the top of the district. One big distraction from the rebranding push was the abrupt and publicly unexplained ousting of Superintendent Clayton Wilcox in July, followed by reshuffling of top jobs.

While that shakeup grabbed headlines, the CMS website is where people seek information on a daily basis. Newcomers research the options. Parents check what's going on at their kids' schools. Policy wonks dive into years of district data that was archived on the old site.

The 2018 contract with Edlio, a national school website company, was supposed to make that experience better, starting with replacing the cumbersome URL -- www.cms.k12.nc.us -- with something easier to remember. 

CMS did surveys about what users wanted and studied traffic on the old site. Edlio offered instant translation to dozens of languages, and features like video captioning that comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act. The cost: $170,000 for the set-up year, $135,000 a year after that, through June of 2021.

But Henry said the biggest public reaction to WeAreCMS.com was frustration. Googling turned up broken links to the old site – or redirected users to the new home page, rather than the specific link they were searching for. When the 2020 magnet application season began, for instance, families couldn’t find reports that would help them calculate their odds of getting in. 

Last week, in the middle of winter break, CMS posted a notice that it was scrapping WeAreCMS.com. A contract that includes a payment schedule shows that CMS had spent $237,500. CMS has said it does not have to pay a penalty for ending its contract early.

Henry said CMS had spent a lot of time working with Edlio, but "what we came to know very clearly is that what we needed the system to do for us, Edlio wasn’t equipped to do for us."

But Edlio CEO Ali Arsan said that the company had tried repeatedly to address the district’s goals and needs but "CMS lacked a consistent vision."

Some of the colors listed in the CMS rebranding guide, which came out in July 2019.

Tracy Russ was in charge of CMS communications when the rebranding campaign began; he resigned in August. He said the overall campaign was designed to help people feel empowered and inspired – and to promote the CMS equity goals.

Many elements of the rebranding remain – including the replacement of the old red CMS logo. The district now uses "CMS blue" – that’s Pantone 638C, brighter than Carolina blue and lighter than Duke blue  – and has a palette of colors to choose from with labels such as Huntersville purple, Pineville orange and Mint Hill green.

Henry says CMS will keep working to figure out the best format for its website.

For now, you can still type in WeAreCMS.com and land on the latest version of the CMS website. But if you bookmarked pages in the last few months, they don't work anymore.