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Commissioner On CMS Alarm Failure: Who Signed, Who Leaked, Who's To Blame?

Mecklenburg Commissioner's Chair George Dunlap and CMS Board Chair Elyse Dashew lead Wednesday's joint meeting.

Mecklenburg County commissioners asked pointed questions Wednesday about Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' purchase of a panic-alarm system that doesn't work. But in a joint meeting with the school board and Superintendent Earnest Winston, they got little more than what Winston disclosed in a Jan. 10 news conference.

That's when Winston reported that the system purchased from the Atlanta-based Centegix still isn't working, despite months of testing and more than $1 million in county money already spent. He said CMS has agreed to pay a total of $1.75 million to install the system in all CMS high schools.

Winston became superintenent in August, after the forced resignation of Clayton Wilcox. Wilcox and the school board agreed not to disclose why Wilcox was suspended, then resigned.

Winston said the agreement was made before he took over. It provided badges that are supposed to allow any faculty member to signal various types of emergencies. Depending on the code entered, that should immediately alert police, trigger a lockdown or launch a building evacuation.

But Winston says the system has never worked consistently in extensive testing at Charlotte East Language Academy and Independence, Garinger and East Mecklenburg high schools.

County Commissioner Vilma Leake, a former school board member, said she had three questions for Winston: "Who signed the contract, who leaked it to the press, and who do we hold accountable?"

Winston repeated what his staff told reporters after the Jan. 10 briefing: CMS handled it through purchase orders, rather than a contract. He told Leake that process is legal and allowable.

When WFAE asked for the Centegix contract after the Jan. 10 briefing, a CMS spokeswoman said there wasn't one. Spokeswoman Renee McCoy said at the time that Centegix won a formal bid process, and she provided 27 purchase orders ranging from about $21,000 to more than $231,000, dated between November 2018 and May 2019.

When Commissioner Trevor Fuller voiced concern "that a million dollars was spent under a purchase-order system" and suggested a need for better accountability, Winston said that "the board has begun to have conversations to ensure that we're not in this same position going forward."

Meg Maloney, a Charlotte lawyer who is representing Wilcox, attended the meeting but said she was there on her own. She said afterward that she has seen a contract, signed by the district's chief technology officer. She said she could not provide a copy.

As for accountability, Winston told Leake what he told reporters earlier: He didn't want to assign blame.

"I want to stay focused from my standpoint on making sure that we fix this issue or we go in another direction," he said.

Winston said he has given Centegix's CEO until Feb. 10 to get the system working. Commissioner Pat Cotham asked what would happen if the company didn't meet that deadline.

"It's our expectation that we will go in a different direction and we will exercise a provision that will allow us to begin to recoup the funds that have already been paid for the project," Winston said.

After the Jan. 10 news conference, Centegix sent a statement describing the process the company and CMS have gone through and saying the company looks forward to continuing to work with CMS.

Winston didn't address Leake's question about who leaked to the press, and she didn't elaborate on what she meant. The Observer has reported that it had obtained information about  the alarm failure through a public records request before the Jan. 10 news conference, part of a broader investigation into Wilcox's departure.

The discussion was part of a meeting to discuss county education spending as both bodies gear up for the 2020 budget. Theh agenda allotted 10 minutes for Winston's three-minute statement and questions, with most of the nearly two-hour meeting focused on health and pre-kindergarten.

CMS Board Chair Elyse Dashew said it was time to move on, even though Leake said CMS had not answered her questions or those she thinks the public has.

Winston didn't stay after the meeting to answer questions from the news media.