Parents question Cobb schools ties to company involved in Fla. bid scandal

Cobb County School District Superintendent Chris Ragsdale speaks before a tour of McEachern High School in Powder Springs, Georgia, on Thursday, February 13, 2020. (Photo/Rebecca Wright for the AJC)

Cobb County School District Superintendent Chris Ragsdale speaks before a tour of McEachern High School in Powder Springs, Georgia, on Thursday, February 13, 2020. (Photo/Rebecca Wright for the AJC)

Cobb County parents and school board members are raising questions about the school district using services provided by a company after one of its former employees was indicted for alleged bid rigging in Florida.

Tony Hunter, a former chief information officer with Broward County Public Schools in South Florida, was indicted there last month by a statewide grand jury on charges of bid tampering and “unlawful compensation for reward for official behavior,” according to court records.

The alleged behavior took place while Hunter was employed with Broward County schools from 2015 to 2019. Hunter is currently out on bond and has pleaded not guilty to all charges, according to his attorney.

Now a Cobb resident, Hunter is a former employee of the company that the Cobb school district has paid for an emergency alert security system, AlertPoint Security, used in its schools.

Florida’s criminal case against Hunter has added to concerns of parents who have pressed the Cobb County School District for information about AlertPoint as well as other purchasing decisions involving another company connected to AlertPoint’s owner.

Parents have spoken during board meetings and emailed Superintendent Chris Ragsdale and board members seeking answers, but say so far they have received none.

AlertPoint, based in Kennesaw, has been touted by the district as an innovative technology that allows teachers and staff to alert officials of any emergencies within schools. The system came under scrutiny by parents after it malfunctioned Feb. 2, briefly placing all Cobb schools on a code red lockdown.

The Cobb County School District said Wednesday that the incident stemmed from a “targeted, external attack” on the system. The system and the Cobb County Police Department’s Technology Based Crimes Unit are investigating the alleged cyber attack.

Before news of the cyber attack was made public Ragsdale and the school district had not publicly responded to parents’ repeated calls for an explanation over the past two weeks.

Parent Heather Tolley-Bauer, a member of Watching the Funds - Cobb, a grassroots watchdog group, was among those calling for answers. “They missed a real opportunity to help parents understand what happened so we could better help our children who were literally afraid for their lives,” Tolley-Bauer told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “And they missed the opportunity to express gratitude for the teachers who show up every day during a pandemic and no doubt were prepared to protect our children.”

The Cobb school district entered into its first agreement with AlertPoint in 2017, years before Hunter was employed there. The Florida allegations against Hunter surfaced in early 2020. AlertPoint officials did not return requests for comment for this story.

According to the Florida indictment, while Hunter was chief information officer with Broward County schools, he allegedly steered $17 million in contracts for classroom video technology to Kennesaw-based EDCO Education, also known as Education Consultants Inc. EDCO was owned by Cobb County businessman David Allen, who died last month of COVID-19, according to an obituary.

According to the indictment, in return for awarding bids to EDCO, Hunter bought a home from Allen in Acworth for about $150,000 less than its fair market value and used a car dealership to indirectly purchase two luxury vehicles from Allen.

After leaving Broward County schools in 2019, Hunter went to work as vice president for AlertPoint, another company owned by Allen, according to the South Florida Sun Sentinel. The company also hired Hunter’s son, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said in a press release.

When reached by the AJC, Hunter directed a reporter to contact his attorney, Bruce Zimet. The Florida attorney said Hunter will fight the charges levied against him by state prosecutors.

“We believe he will ultimately be exonerated of all the allegations against him,” Zimet said.

When questioned about the district’s ties with the companies, Cobb schools spokeswoman Nan Kiel said the district does not have the details of what happened in Broward County, Florida, and does not control “what happens in other districts.”

“We can make sure transparency, accountability, and the law are at the heart of our procurement processes,” she said, adding the district’s Procurement Department has won best-in-class awards for the last decade for its professionalism.

Cobb schools have active agreements with both AlertPoint and EDCO. AlertPoint has been the vendor of the district’s “crisis management system” since 2017, and its most recent agreement for the service was renewed in October.

The school district didn’t respond to the AJC’s request for the price of AlertPoint’s system, but a 2017 document indicates the district was going to spend $146,000 to expand the system to two schools, in addition to its original pilot program at one school.

Since about 2014, EDCO has supplied the district with interactive flat panels, which are large touchscreen computers with television capabilities, and other technology. Its bid with Cobb was renewed in August. Cobb schools has not provided the AJC with the total cost of how much it has paid EDCO for the equipment.

Audrey Young, a spokeswoman with Holland & Knight, a law firm representing EDCO, said the company’s two-decade success is built on its compliance with all laws and regulations “in order to meet our mission of providing innovative educational technology and helping create the classrooms of the future.”

Members of Watching the Funds - Cobb are also demanding answers after the Board of Education approved spending up to $12 million to install UV sanitizing lights and hand-rinsing technology to help fight the spread of COVID-19 in schools. Parents say Superintendent Ragsdale did not provide scientific data to back up his recommendation that school board members approve the purchase.

Allen was the CEO of Protek Life Inc., the company Cobb schools selected to install the UV lighting technology in 67 of its elementary schools. Tolley-Bauer said Superintendent Ragsdale needs to provide information that’s “open and honest” to parents seeking information.

“Obviously, these things can be nuanced and multi-faceted and as constituents, we understand that,” she said. “But there is no information coming out of the district at all and we have legitimate questions about fiduciary responsibility, safety and the health and wellbeing of our kids and our teachers. He needs to address that in a meaningful way.”

Kiel said the district communicates about its programs, schools and support services for students and staff through its website and social media accounts. She also said the district encourages questions and feedback, “which will be responded to with every piece of information that is publicly available.”

Board Chair Randy Scamihorn added the district has “internal checks and balances to make sure everything is done properly and no favoritism is shown to any one company.”

“It’s an affront to the men and women who work in our procurement department for someone to think they would do something improper,” he said.

Cobb Board of Education member Tre Hutchins said the news out of Florida is “problematic,” and he hopes the district will review its existing contracts with AlertPoint and EDCO to make sure there aren’t any irregularities.

“This is a public school system, and we are accountable to the public,” he said.

Board member Charisse Davis said she hopes the Hunter case will trigger an internal evaluation to make sure “we don’t have a reason to be concerned.” Dr. Jaha Howard, another board member, said the district has to acknowledge that the concerns raised by parents are valid so it can begin addressing their questions.

“We need to overcommunicate in these type of situations,” he said. “That builds trust and it will strengthen our relationship between that board and superintendent and the leadership and the public.”