Union County schools will investigate allegations surrounding superintendent

Tony Burrus, Chief Technology Officer for Union County Public Schools
Tony Burrus, Chief Technology Officer for Union County Public Schools via WBTV

Union County Schools says it will investigate after some residents raised concerns about a company owned and managed by Superintendent Mary Ellis and two other top administrators.

The decision came during a closed meeting Tuesday afternoon. The school board said an independent council will investigate questions about the dealings of Educatrx Inc. that were brought up over the weekend. WBTV investigated the claims.

According to documents filed with the N.C. Secretary of State’s Office, Ellis is the president of Educatrx Inc.

Tony Burrus, chief technology officer for Union County Public Schools, is listed as the company’s vice president. Mike Webb, assistant superintendent for instructional technology and operations is listed as secretary.

A fourth man, Jason Mooneyham, is the company’s treasurer. Mooneyham is the executive director for public sector sales for computer manufacturer Lenovo.

It is unclear what Educatrx does but questions about the company have surfaced since details of the business’ management became public. The questions – posted by concerned Union County residents on social media – center on the appearance of a conflict of interest involving contracts between Union County Public Schools and Lenovo.

Hours after Tuesday’s school board meeting, its members held a joint meeting with the Union County Board of Commissioners, where commissioners requested the topic be placed on the agenda. That effort was voted down.

“Certainly I think this would be an appropriate time to provide an update to us, but also the citizens of the county and I think their failure to do so was a great disappointment to me,” Commissioner Frank Aikmus said.

But that didn’t stop commissioners from bringing up the issue again. Once the joint meeting ended, commissioners reconvened, voting to ask the Union County Sheriff to investigate Ellis, bringing in the State Bureau of Investigation if needed.

“We feel like we owe the taxpayers a response as to what’s been alleged against our superintendent and key staff members,” Aikmus said.

Earlier in the day, Union school board Chair John Collins addressed the media after the closed session. “There will be an independent counsel that will investigate all the allegations and instances involved in this particular situation.”

WBTV approached school board Vice Chairperson Leslie Boyd right before she went into the closed meeting and asked what her constituents were saying about these allegations.

“They are hoping we take care of this,” she said. “And that we are candid and we do everything that we are elected to do that I can promise you.”

No word who the independent counsel will be, but Collins tells WBTV he will share that information soon. The public will be notified when the investigation is complete.

Educatrx Inc. was incorporated in Delaware in April 2014. Ellis filed an application for certificate of authority with the North Carolina Secretary of State in late October 2015.

Lenovo is the standardized hardware vendor for the school system. On Your Side Investigates found at least two transactions between Lenovo and UCPS approved by the Board of Education in the time since Ellis, Burrus, Webb and Mooneyham formed their company.

The first transaction came on March 10, 2015, when the board voted to approve the purchase of 10,000 new Chromebooks from Lenovo as part of a technology refresh for elementary-aged students.

According to meeting minutes and board documents, the purchase was approved via consent agenda – a list of items on which board members do not discuss before they vote.

Records posted on the UCPS website show the purchase was first discussed and approved by the Strategic Planning and Technology Committee on Feb. 19, 2015. Ellis, the superintendent, is listed as a member of that committee.

Minutes of the Feb. 19 meeting show Webb made the presentation to committee members and recommended the Chromebook purchase from Lenovo.

The minutes also show a motion to approve and recommend the purchase to the Board of Education passed unanimously but the minutes omit the name of the person who made the motion.

The second transaction between UCPS and Lenovo was approved by board members in September 2015. Meeting minutes show the board approved two resolutions authorizing an exchange of property with Lenovo. Again, like with the March purpose, the approval came as part of the consent agenda.

It is unclear what property was being exchanged but one resolution values the property at $110,000. Attachments referenced in the resolutions were not posted as part of the board documents.

A schools spokeswoman issued the following statement Monday in response to questions from On Your Side Investigates:

“The Board of Education gave Superintendent Dr. Mary Ellis permission to write, consult, teach and patent her intellectual property in March 2014. The situation in question is a confidential personnel matter and is being addressed accordingly.”

On Your Side Investigates also contacted Lenovo, Ellis and Webb for comment but those requests have not been answered.

It is not clear if any laws would prohibit the outside business relationship between top district administrators and a top sales executive for Lenovo.

WBTV is a media partner of The Charlotte Observer.