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CMS paying $160,000 for internet hotspots students aren't using

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools records identify more than 10,000 taxpayer-funded mobile hotspots that registered no data during the most recent billing cycle.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools used roughly $160,000 in pandemic money recently to pay for internet hotspots that students did not use. 

The district's monthly mobile hotspot usage report identified more than 10,000 of its 13,000 hotspots, nearly 80%, that registered zero usage for the reporting period of April 2022.

"That's a shocking number. That's very big," CMS Board of Education Student Advisor Juan Torres Muñoz said. "Obviously, I understand that taxpayers would be concerned about the way these hotspots are being used."

According to a district spokesperson, CMS applied for Emergency Connectivity Funds through the Federal Communications Commission "to ensure students had connectivity in the event schools had to go back to hybrid or remote learning."

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"CMS is currently asking all schools to collect hotspots as part of the collection process this year," Media Relations Specialist Eddie Perez said.

District data reveals that 10,793 hotspots are labeled as "zero usage" devices, registering no data during the most recent billing cycle. District records identify 13,860 hotspots linked to T-Mobile plans that cost $15 a device per month. A WCNC Charlotte analysis of CMS data revealed the total cost of monthly plans for "zero usage" devices at just under $162,000.

WCNC Charlotte is always asking "where's the money?" If you need help, reach out to WCNC Charlotte by emailing money@wcnc.com.

WCNC Charlotte's latest discovery comes just weeks after records identified nearly $1.5 million worth of missing student-issued technology. Emails show on the day WCNC Charlotte questioned the district's interim superintendent and new chief technology officer about more than 10,000 lost and stolen hotspots, Chromebooks and iPads, CMS announced a task force to address the problem.

Citing WCNC Charlotte's findings, administrators also pledged more routine inventory checks, better training and consistent and equitable accountability for families that fail to protect taxpayers' investment. They said the pandemic, with its virtual, hybrid and then in-person learning, created unprecedented technological challenges, but pledged to better protect tax dollars moving forward.

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Students have since asked to be part of the solution. Muñoz, an East Mecklenburg High School junior, is among those calling for better oversight of CMS technology.

"We're the ones being affected and we're the ones who are kind of causing the problem, so we have to find ways to solve this problem," Muñoz said.

The goal is to have new procedures in place before the next school year. Records show CMS seems interested in listening to students. Muñoz thinks the district would benefit from more frequent check-ins of devices and their usage. The pandemic eliminated routine device inventories since students were able to hold onto their computers and hotspots over the course of two school years, including the summer. 

"They also should, at the end of the school year, do a recount, an inventory and check how many are used and how many will be needed for next year," he said of the hotspots.

Contact Nate Morabito at nmorabito@wcnc.com and follow him on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

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