JIM SHULTZ: The $2.7 million bonfire on Beattie Avenue

Jim Shultz

How would we feel, as parents and as taxpayers, if the leaders of the Lockport school district went to the bank one afternoon, withdrew $2.7 million of district education funds in cash, took those giant bags of $100 bills and burned them in a bonfire in the district office parking lot? This now is the practical effect of the district’s foolish facial recognition surveillance system, which officially went live last week after a year and a half delay.

For those who have forgotten the details, here is a quick refresher. In 2014, New York voters approved a $2 billion Smart Schools Bond Act to support technology education programs for our children. Other districts invested their money in things like faster internet and new computers. Lockport listened to a sweet-talking salesman and spent our money on high-tech surveillance cameras. The district boasted that ours would be the first schools in the nation to have them. Superintendent Michelle Bradley gushed that they were “above and beyond.”

In reality, however, the project is a $2.7 million boondoggle that has made our children and teachers less safe, not more. The whole plan was based on a salesman’s fairy tale — that the district could predict in advance who a school shooter would be, put his photo in a magical data base of bad guys, and then use the high-tech cameras to spot him if he showed up at any of our schools. But if the assailant wasn’t someone predicted in advance (or if he bothered to cover his face with a $10 mask from Walmart), then the multimillion dollar system would do absolutely nothing at all.

The sketchy Canadian company pitching this system knocked on the doors of school districts all across Western New York desperately trying to find a first buyer. There was a good reason that other districts weren’t interested — they knew it was stupid. But the Lockport district took the bait, at our students’ expense.

For nearly two school years now, the district has struggled to turn on its fancy spy camera system but has run into one problem after another. Even one of the project’s most vocal advocates on the board has said publicly that it will end up doing only 10% of what was promised. That’s what happens when you buy a sales pitch instead of doing your homework.

I’m the father of a Lockport High School student and I care as much as anyone about school safety. But being safe isn’t about how much we spend, it is about being smart — and the district’s spy cameras are anything but smart. What the district needed to do, and never did, was seek out the guidance of a real security expert without a hidden agenda. What our superintendent and Board of Education did instead was put our children’s safety into the hands of a salesman with a product to sell. It was irresponsible.

The district's expensive cameras do accomplish one thing, though: they turn Lockport’s children into lab rats in a high-tech experiment in privacy invasion. From the moment the new cameras went live our children began being recorded by the same technology that China and Russia use to track dissidents. For as long as those recordings exists, the system has the technical capacity (by the salesman’s own admission) to go back and retroactively map where our children have been and who they have been with. No other students in the country are watched by Big Brother in such an invasive way.

As it was rushing to spend the money two years ago, did the superintendent and board even bother to think about these privacy implications for our children? Not at all. The board’s discussion about privacy lasted all of 60 seconds and consisted of happy assurances from the salesman that there was nothing to worry about. It was like believing a used car salesman who tells you not to worry about that giant pool of oil underneath the car.

But of course, there are huge privacy issues here — enough that Republicans and Democrats in the New York Assembly have joined together to approve a bill freezing the Lockport system and any others like it. Florida did the same years ago with a law promoted by state Republicans.

To be clear, this is not just a case of good intentions gone bad. This is a case of willful ignorance on the part of the district. Before the project was approved, more than a hundred parents and taxpayers petitioned the board to wait until all these concerns were addressed. But like a child obsessed with a new toy, the district refused to listen, and now $2.7 million in education funds have gone up in smoke.

Our school district’s disastrous spy cameras project has become a subject of national news, a warning to other districts across the country about how not to protect our children. But here in Lockport who will be held accountable for wasting $2.7 million of taxpayer money and entrusting our children’s safety to a salesman? The superintendent, the board, anyone?

As parents, we take a deep interest in our children’s education within the confines of their classrooms. But when it comes time to elect the Board of Education that runs the whole district, three quarters of the people don’t vote and hardly anyone pays attention at all. The cameras fiasco is exactly what we get when we stop paying attention. This May there will be four seats open on the board. That seems like a very good time for us to do some much-needed spring cleaning on Beattie Avenue.

Jim Shultz is the founder and executive director of the Democracy Center and a father and grandfather in Lockport. He can be reached by email at: jimshultz@democracyctr.org.

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