IW schools to buy new ID badge system

Published 2:02 pm Monday, October 22, 2018

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Despite the Isle of Wight County Board of Supervisors recent call for a halt to any further spending of approximately $820,000 the supervisors had appropriated to Isle of Wight County Schools for security upgrades, the School Board, on Tuesday, voted unanimously to proceed with plans to implement a new access control badge system at all of the division’s facilities.

The proposal the division received from Mid-Atlantic Technology Services for the installation specifies an estimated cost of $179,000. The system, which is already in use at Poquoson, Newport News and Virginia Beach public schools, will require the swipe of an ID badge to enter a school or any outbuildings on campus. Currently, the division’s existing badge swipe system is limited to teachers and staff members, but the new system would be expanded to high school students. It will also allow staff and students to use their smartphones in lieu of their badges to open doors, in the event someone left a badge at home.

The division had initially anticipated the cost of this to be $188,000 for upgrading all existing door locks, plus an additional $56,000 to purchase 12 additional door locks for the new career and technical education outbuildings at Windsor High School, Smithfield High School and Windsor Elementary School.

Lynn Briggs, director of community and media relations for Isle of Wight County Schools, said that until the division sees a full contract, it can’t speculate as to the possible cost savings, but if there are not major revisions from the estimate, there should be a cost savings, even if the proposed cost does not include the badges themselves. Two-thousand badges, even at $5 per badge, would be a $10,000 adjustment, making the total cost $189,000.

The new badge swipes can also be expanded at a later date, and at an additional cost, to include a visitor management system. This would record camera footage five seconds after a badge is used to ensure that the person whose badge is used at an exterior door and the person seen walking into the building are one in the same. The visitor management system could also include the capability of scanning a visitor’s driver’s license or other form of ID and performing a background check against sex offender registries and other lists of people barred from being on school property.

Briggs said that with the School Board’s approving vote now on record, the division can begin contract negotiations with the vendor, meaning arranging walk-throughs of the various buildings, ensuring that the proposal is accurate and making adjustments as required before returning to the School Board with a fully fleshed out contract proposal, which typically includes a statement of work and timeline proposal. When asked if the division had complied with the Board of Supervisor’s request for greater oversight or whether the School Board’s vote meant that the division was proceeding in spite of the supervisors’ request for a delay, Briggs said that division officials are continuing to work with county officials for input and assistance on requests for proposals for the access system and communication system, specifically Jeff Terwilliger, the county’s chief of emergency services, and Andrea Clontz from the county’s emergency management office. She added that no additional money has been spent yet from the amount allocated to the schools for security upgrades.

The Board of Supervisors’ call for the division to stop spending the allocated school security funds, pending greater oversight, came during the supervisors’ September meeting after they learned that a system of door barricades the school division had purchased for nearly $65,000 needed to be removed because the locks were found to be noncompliant with state fire codes. Assistant County Administrator Don Robertson clarified that the funds were not being “frozen” nor was their request for a delay “legally binding.”

At that meeting, Windsor District Supervisor Joel Acree said he had lost his confidence in the division’s security plan, and Smithfield District Supervisor Dick Grice said he believed that had the schools’ efforts been better coordinated with the county’s Emergency Services department, the $65,000 would not yet have been spent.

In response to the Board of Supervisors’ criticisms, which some supervisors reiterated at a work session on Oct. 4, two of the School Board members, on Tuesday, read prepared statements.

“[Superintendent Dr. Jim] Thornton assigned a staff member to handle the permitting and purchasing, and then turned it over [to an employee,]” said Kirstin Cook, vice chairwoman of the School Board. “This employee, unfortunately, did not follow through as needed. When it was discovered over the summer that these locks were against code, this became a personnel matter in regards to the employee who had been overseeing it all.”

Briggs had previously explained that the division had purchased Nightlock “Lockdown 1” devices for a total of 718 doors at a cost of $64,658. She said that prior to the devices’ installation, the division checked with Terwilliger, who also serves as the county’s fire marshall. He, according to Briggs, told the division to check with the county’s director of inspections, Art. Berkley, but that never happened. Then, on Sept. 10, school divisions throughout Virginia received an email from Dr. James F. Lane, superintendent of public instruction for the Virginia Department of Education, informing them that the state fire marshall had recently indicated that these devices may be in conflict with provisions in the Virginia Uniform Statewide Building Code (USBC) and the Statewide Fire Prevention Code (SFPC.)

“Cooperation is a two-way street,” Cook added. “The supervisors have now had two meetings in which they discussed the shortcomings of the schools without, to my knowledge, inviting any formal discussion with the School Board nor letting us know our schools would be a topic of discussion. This seems to me to be amore of an authoritative arrangement rather than a cooperative one.”

School Board Member Jackie Carr, the other to read a prepared statement, said, “When I read The Smithfield Times article that summarized the Board of Supervisors’ discussion of this situation, I was disappointed that they would be so quick to conclude to our citizens that our school leadership has been irresponsible… An employee did not follow leadership expectations… If the leadership had tried to make excuses for this error or cover up this employee mistake, then distrust should be the consequence. But that didn’t happen.

“It saddens me to see yet another newspaper article where the Board of Supervisors, once again, took the opportunity to highlight the door lock purchase and then say the school administration is not on the ‘same page’ as emergency services and law enforcement. That statement alone sent a false message to our citizens, as we work consistently with emergency services and law enforcement… I question why the School Board wasn’t included in the initial creation of the Safety Task Force by the Board of Supervisors, when the main focus has been schools.”

The members of the School Board also produced a three-page list detailing each date of contact since March between school personnel and various representatives of town police departments, the Sheriff’s Department and Emergency Services. The list also included communications between the school personnel and a representative of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security who had attended a county-wide safety task force meeting. That task force had been created during the same meeting in March at which the funding was first approved.

“This is not something we’re going into willy nilly,” said School Board Chairwoman Vicky Hulick. “I just wish all facts were checked before accusations are made.”