The State Comptroller's Office apparently wants the full details of how and why the Lockport City School District decided to buy a facial recognition security system.
Jim Shultz, the father of a Lockport High School student, petitioned the state Feb. 4 for an audit of the history of the district's $2.7 million purchase of the Aegis System from the Ontario company SN Technologies.
The Comptroller's Office sent the district a letter Tuesday announcing an audit but not mentioning the security system.
"The audit will focus on evaluating District operations with the goal of promoting efficiency and protecting District assets from loss or misuse," it says.
But Shultz said the Comptroller's Office sent him a copy of the letter the day it was written.
"It's not random that a month after a citizen petitioned them to do this, that they decided to do it," Shultz said. "I think it's pretty clear where this came from."
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The Comptroller's Office audits all school districts and local governments every few years. The Lockport schools were last audited in 2016 and would have been audited again in the next two years, a spokeswoman for Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli said.
"It is our general policy not to comment about the specifics of an audit while it is underway," the spokeswoman said.
"The District looks forward to cooperating with the Comptroller’s office on the upcoming audit no matter which areas of District operations are within the scope of the audit, and in any event the District is confident that its implementation of the Aegis System, which was approved by both the Smart School Bond Act Review Board and the State Education Department, was in all respects compliant with the law and in the best interests of the District’s students, staff and visitors," Superintendent Michelle T. Bradley wrote in an email to The Buffalo News Wednesday.
"I think there's a high likelihood that they're going to find the school district didn't do business in the way it's supposed to do business," Shultz said. "They spent $2.7 million without any serious competitive bidding process or any serious analysis of the problem or their options."
"Despite repeated incorrect claims to the contrary, the fact is that the Aegis System was purchased through a competitive bidding process," Bradley wrote in her email to The News.
"The District independently evaluated the Aegis System’s capability and effectiveness in the school setting and relied on input in that regard from the District’s Smart School Bond Act consultant ECC Technologies as well as the District’s architect Trautman Associates," Bradley wrote.
But Shultz's petition charged that the district relied on Tony Olivo, an Orchard Park security consultant who turned out to be SN Technologies' U.S. distributor.
Shultz also charged that Olivo conducted an investigation into his personal background at the district's request after Shultz started asking questions about the system at board meetings in 2018.
Olivo declined comment on the audit, referring all questions to the school district.
A May 2018 district email exchange with Olivo, attached to Shultz's petition, includes background information on Shultz. Bradley said the information was "unsolicited," based on Olivo's analysis of another company's offer for a facial recognition system. The email said Shultz and that company's CEO went to college together; Shultz said that is not true.
"The fact is, at no time did the Board of Education or administration of the District initiate, authorize, or conduct any such alleged investigation, nor did the District spend any funds with regard to any such alleged investigation," Bradley wrote to The News.
Shultz is the executive director of the Democracy Center, an activist group he founded in San Francisco in 1992. Since moving to Lockport a few years ago, he has been published in the New York Times and the New York Review of Books, including a 2020 essay titled "A Liberal in Trump Land."
His petition to the Comptroller's Office was bolstered by material obtained under the Freedom of Information Law by the New York Civil Liberties Union, a staunch critic of facial recognition systems.
"We share many of Mr. Shultz's concerns about the conduct of the Lockport City School District, especially regarding their nontransparency and potential misuse of funds in the course of acquiring and attempting to install a face surveillance system," said Stefanie Coyle, deputy director of the NYCLU's Education Policy Center. "Students and families in Lockport deserve confidence that school resources are being used effectively and properly for education purposes, not being funneled to private contractors with potential conflicts of interest."
The material includes a January 2016 letter to Olivo from Deborah Coder, the district's assistant superintendent for finance. "Our district hopes to be one of the first school districts in the United States using this product and we intend to acquire the SN Tech product given a successful application approval from the SSBA funding, Coder wrote.
The security system was not purchased until 2018. It was approved by the Education Department in late 2019 and activated in January 2020.
It was shut off in December after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed a bill banning facial recognition systems in New York schools until the Education Department conducts a full study of the issues connected with them.
Studies worldwide have shown that facial recognition systems are more likely to make a false match between a live image and a stored photo if the subject is Black, female or a child. In short, the systems work best on white men.
A federal agency's 2019 testing of the software used in the Aegis System showed it was more than 99% accurate, but errors were most likely if the subject was Black.