CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Virtual learning put even more iPads, Chromebooks, and mobile hotspots into the hands of families, but a WCNC Charlotte investigation identified nearly $1.5 million worth of technology issued by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools reported as lost or stolen in recent years, including some even taken to pawnshops.
In response, new Interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh promised the district will "tighten it up" moving forward.
"We will be looking at how we can do a better job in the future," he told WCNC Charlotte. "It's essential that everybody understands we want to be good stewards of federal, state, and local dollars and to have the processes in place and the systems that we can actually go through and monitor them and get them back."
School system records show since the district started tracking lost and stolen technology in the last few years, CMS has documented more than 10,000 devices as lost or stolen. The data shows Chromebooks account for the majority of lost devices, with more than 6,700 reported missing over the last three years, followed by 2,100 mobile hot spots and more than 1,200 iPads. The numbers account for more than 6% of all CMS-issued devices, most funded by federal COVID-19 dollars.
WCNC Charlotte's analysis of district records revealed the problem is far worse at more than a dozen schools, where at least 20% of computers and hot spots are considered missing. WCNC Charlotte shared the names of most of those schools with CMS two weeks ago.
Use the tool below to search for your child's school and see how many devices are missing or stolen:
"Principals right now are tracking down individuals," Hattabaugh said. "They're making contact trying to track down to retrieve those devices, as well as putting into practice - depending on the situation - retrieving money."
While every parent and student sign a contract agreeing to pay for lost devices and some schools even list replacement fees, CMS leaves it up to each school to handle any "monetary recourse," which means there hasn't been consistency districtwide or a concerted effort by the central office.
"We'll keep working with those schools individually, giving them more training and keep trying to lift those schools up," Information Systems and Support Director Kenneth Kennedy said. "We have a good system in place that we implemented before COVID. COVID took us off the rails for a bit and now we're back working with schools, training staff on our inventory system, making sure the data's accurate and that's kind of our big thing, keep training staff, lifting them up, following good processes and then, as we mentioned earlier, we'll have a new policy in place in the near future."
Candace Salmon-Hosey, the new Chief Technology Officer for the district, promised better accountability moving forward.
"This opens an opportunity for me coming in new to assess and evaluate and create processes, build those structures of accountability, because there's no doubt we need to tighten up the structures that we have in place and build new structures to ensure there's a level of accountability," she told WCNC Charlotte. "My belief is technology is a service organization and we're here to serve the teaching and learning process and the way we do that is create these structures of accountability, so that next year when you come here in May and June, those numbers are going to look better. On my watch, they will."
Salmon-Hosey said the district has created an internal task force to address the problem and started trying to learn best practices from other large districts. She said the district will need to consider consistency and equity.
"You can have consistency and a demand for payment 'if this then,' but then you have to take in consideration certain situations that come into play for families that don't have the means to pay," she said.
Administrators believe the pandemic, coupled with students' home lives, played a role in the missing technology.
"We've seen technology show up in pawnshops. Absolutely," she said. "Has it been sold? Absolutely. Is it going to another family member? Maybe."
They said remote learning eliminated regular equipment inventory checks and left devices in the hands of students, not just during the school year, but in the summer too.
"That made it very difficult to do the monitoring, the check-ins," Hattabaugh said. "We're still responsible, but I just feel like you put it into the context of this situation and that was a difficult time. There were events that we had no control of, but from here forward we can."
While the technology is worth money, once it's reported lost or stolen, it's basically worthless for anyone without CMS credentials. According to the district, as soon as the district knows Chromebooks or iPads are missing, the school system uses unique ID numbers to disable them.
Chandan Jha is a father of two CMS students, and couldn't believe thousands of families haven't upheld their end of the bargain.
"That's pretty sad," he said. "It's the taxpayers' money and people should be just cognizant of this fact and look after it as if it is their own money."
Brooke Weiss, chairwoman for the Mecklenburg County chapter of Moms for Liberty, was shocked to learn CMS doesn't track what, if any money, individual schools collect to cover the lost technology.
"That's not even fathomable to me," she said. "How can they not be tracking it?"
Weiss said she knows of one parent whose child graduated and the school didn't ask for the computer back.
"That's really a shame and just another example of the mismanagement of funds," she said. "It makes me sad."
Hattabaugh, who just took over last month, acknowledged student movement after graduation likely created an issue as well. He said he does not believe the records analyzed by WCNC Charlotte take into account the 10,000 computers previously donated by the private sector to families for them to keep.
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