A panic alarm system that Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools had touted as a way to make schools safer doesn’t work, Superintendent Earnest Winston said Friday.
"At school, after school, we found that the system didn’t perform as promised and it did not perform consistently," Winston said.
He said he's given the vendor an ultimatum: Fix it quickly or return the $1 million CMS has already spent.
When schools opened in August, CMS gave reporters a demonstration of a new panic alarm system at Charlotte East Language Academy. Employees of about 30 schools got cards that are supposed to be able to alert police of danger and trigger an instant lockdown or evacuation.
CMS agreed to pay Centegix, an Atlanta-based security firm, $1.75 million to install the system at all full-size high schools and a couple of other locations. Winston says Centegix has reported success in other school districts, but he says in CMS it’s still unreliable, despite repeated efforts to solve the problems.
"Student safety is too important for us to have a poor performance in any way on any platform," Winston said at a Friday news conference.
Winston and CMS Police Chief Lisa Mangum said the failures have occurred only in testing, not in actual emergencies. They added the failure doesn’t mean CMS is any less safe than it was, but additional safety measures that were promised and paid for haven’t materialized.
So far CMS has paid $1.13 million. Winston says he gave the company's CEO a Feb. 10 deadline to get the system fully working. If that doesn't happen, he said, he'll break the agreement and try to get the public’s money back.
Centegix's statement in response to inquiries describes the process CMS and the company have gone through, but it doesn’t directly address Winston’s complaints or deadline. The statement says "phased deployment," including CMS staff training, is ongoing and Centegix looks forward to continuing to work with CMS. (Read full statement below.)
The panic alarms were among several school safety improvements former Superintendent Clayton Wilcox introduced after a fatal school shooting at Butler High in 2018.
When WFAE requested the contract with Centegix after Winston’s news conference, CMS said there isn’t one. Spokeswoman Renee McCoy says Centegix won a formal bid process, and she provided 27 separate purchase orders. Those orders ranged from about $21,000 to more $231,000 and were logged between November 2018 and May 2019.
In July, Wilcox was forced to resign. Neither he nor the school board has disclosed the reason.
Winston declined to assign blame for the problems, but noted that the agreement was made before he was named superintendent last summer.