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What to know about Green Bay schools proposal to buy $1.8M alarm system

GREEN BAY ― The Green Bay School Board is considering buying a $1.8 million crisis alert system from CENTEGIX, a company that was sued about its system being “faulty” and “inoperable” and includes annual software licensing costs.

The School Board was set to vote on the purchase Jan. 23, but the vote was postponed until Feb. 13 after board member Nancy Welch raised concerns about the lawsuit and the system’s $327,000 recurring cost each year after the first five years.

The security system includes staff badges for alerting building administrators of an emergency or when a teacher needs assistance with a student. Strobes would add visual cues inside and outside schools, flashing different colors depending on the emergency. The system also includes a central dashboard of data for the district, showing what type of incidents are happening and where.

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Administrators said the system would help students and staff who are deaf or hard of hearing as well as show people in loud classrooms, like the gym or orchestra, that there’s an emergency.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina sued the Georgia-based firm in 2020 because the company’s crisis alert system didn’t work, according to the federal lawsuit.

Board President Laura McCoy, who is up for reelection in April, and board member Bryan Milz voted against postponing the vote. McCoy declined to comment on the purchase proposal or the board’s knowledge of the lawsuit and recurring costs.

Why was CENTEGIX sued by a North Carolina school district that bought the same system Green Bay Schools is considering?

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools agreed to pay CENTEGIX $1.7 million to install the security system in its 26 schools, according to reporting by WFAE in Charlotte. That’s similar to Green Bay schools’ $1.8 million proposed purchase price for the same security system.

The federal lawsuit brought by the North Carolina school district alleged, among other things, that:

  • The security system didn’t function reliably.
  • The system failed to alert necessary personnel when used.
  • Critical alert messages were incorrect.
  • Staff security badges failed to work properly or at all.
  • Teacher location tracking failed.
  • Batteries on the strobes drained at “an alarming rate.”
  • The system caused significant delays of critical safety information.
  • Strobes repeatedly dislocated from ceiling or other surfaces.

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Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools settled with CENTEGIX in fall 2020 for a $475,000 refund from the company, according to the settlement obtained by the Press-Gazette. It paid $655,000 for the system that it ended up not fully using, WFAE reported. The district didn’t pay the remaining $570,000 of the agreement.

The Green Bay School District’s chief operating officer, Josh Patchak, said the district has done reference checks with one school district that has the system and one that is in the process of setting up the system, both giving positive reviews. He said he plans to do more.

“We’ve done a fair amount of legwork trying to make sure that this is something that’s going to be good for the district, for our staff, for students, and the references have been great,” he said.

The district didn’t seek a competitive bid for the security system because CENTEGIX is a sole source provider, according to administrators.

The Press-Gazette asked CENTEGIX if it’s made any improvements or changes to its product since the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ lawsuit in 2020. A spokesperson wrote in a statement:

“Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools was an early customer that purchased CrisisAlert in 2019. We have consistently added capabilities, features and processes to both harden the system and enhance CrisisAlert functionality available to our customers. Since Charlotte, we have implemented over 3,000 additional sites.”

How will the district cover the recurring cost of $327,000, given a projected budget deficit of $36 million?

Under the proposal, the district would purchase the system’s hardware from CENTEGIX for $1.6 million and the software from Madison-based Singlewire Software for $175,000. Singlewire was not a part of the system implemented in North Carolina.

The initial $1.8 million purchase would be good for five years.

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After that, the district would need to renew the software licensing every year at a cost of $7,800 per school per year. With the district’s 42 buildings, that would cost about $327,000 a year, which would come out of the district’s operational budget.

But with the district facing a projected $36 million budget deficit come the 2024-25 school year, the system’s price tag raises questions about how the district will handle that recurring operational cost.

Patchak said the district has five years to figure it out.

“If, over the course of five years, we take a look at the data and make decisions that it’s not worth renewing or we’re in such dire financial straits that we’re not able to renew, I’d be looking at scaling it back to the secondary schools … which is something we could absorb between our technology and our security operational budgets,” he said.

Patchak said even if the district didn’t renew after the initial five years, the district would still get value from the system for that time.

Were Green Bay School Board members, and the public, informed of the lawsuit and full recurring costs before the purchase being set for a vote?

Neither the school district nor the board talked about the lawsuit against CENTEGIX or the full recurring cost publicly before Welch brought up the concerns at the Jan. 23 meeting — when the board was set to vote.

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At the meeting, board member James Lyerly said he was unaware of the total recurring cost.

“I was struck by the fact that I did not necessarily learn that at the working session, and I think some of the information is new to board members this evening,” he said. “But I do remember putting a question to the district about cost, and I am struck that I am caught unaware that we were being charged a per-building cost amount. I think that was a fact that wasn’t well communicated.”

What’s next?

The School Board postponed discussion on the purchase until Feb. 13 where members will have the chance to ask questions and then take a final vote on the proposal.

Danielle DuClos is a Report for America corps member who covers K-12 education for the Green Bay Press-Gazette. Contact her at [email protected]. Follow on Twitter @danielle_duclos. You can directly support her work with a tax-deductible donation at GreenBayPressGazette.com/RFA or by check made out to The GroundTruth Project with subject line Report for America Green Bay Press Gazette Campaign. Address: The GroundTruth Project, Lockbox Services, 9450 SW Gemini Dr, PMB 46837, Beaverton, Oregon 97008-7105.

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