Union County

Union commissioners vote to investigate conflict of interest issue

The joint meeting Tuesday night between the Union County Board of Education and the Board of County Commissioners had been scheduled to ease tensions and improve relations between the two boards.

But recent news that Union County Public Schools Superintendent Mary Ellis and high-ranking members of her staff formed a corporation with an employee of Lenovo – a company that manufactures computers used by the school system – cast a shadow over the meeting in Porter Ridge High School’s auditorium.

The meeting ended with board of education members adjourning and the commissioners taking a brief recess before returning to pass a motion asking for law enforcement to conduct an independent investigation into the incorporation of EDUCATRX Inc., and a limited liability corporation referred to as MWebb LLC.

Two hours earlier, at the start of the meeting between the two boards, Commissioners Chairman Richard Helms asked to add an item to the agenda about the revelation involving Ellis, Dr. Mike Webb, deputy superintendent of instructional technology and operations, and Tony Burrus, chief technology officer.

Board of Education Chairman John Collins responded to Helms’ proposed amendment by saying “this board is handcuffed by personnel decisions…We would not ask about your personnel matters, and I prefer you do not ask us to talk about ours at this point.”

He said the two boards were holding the joint meeting because of their “financial obligations to each other, and that is what we need to be discussing here.”

Collins referenced a statement he had released to the media before the meeting. That statement was “As with all allegations of employee misconduct, the Board of Education will conduct a thorough independent investigation.”

The motion Helms made to amend the agenda failed 8-6. All five commissioners voted to amend the agenda, and were joined by board of education member Melissa Merrell. After the amendment motion failed, the two boards talked about ways to improve financial communications.

But when the time for individual comments by board members arrived, commission members brought up the issue of EDUCATRX again, and how they wanted more answers about the potential conflict of interest.

In 2012, before Ellis became superintendent, UCPS signed a $3.4 million contract with Lenovo to provide laptops, backpacks, on-site service and a three year warranty.

According to the North Carolina Department of the Secretary of State’s website, an application filed Oct. 27 said EDUCATRX Inc., was organized in Delaware on April 5, 2014. It says the corporation’s “principal office” is at 1727 Biggers Cemetery Road in Monroe, which Union County records list as belonging to Mary and James Ellis.

The application says Mary Ellis is the registered agent for EDUCATRX in the State of North Carolina, and the current officers are: Mary Ellis, president; Tony Burrus, vice-president; Mike Webb, secretary; and Jason Mooneyham, treasurer. Mooneyham’s business address on the application is listed as 1727 Biggers Cemetery Road.

Articles and news releases found online identify Mooneyham as vice president of public sector sales at Lenovo.

After Tuesday night’s meeting, Helms said the issue “has got to be resolved. That is a huge cloud over the county.”

He said the best way to do that is to enlist the help of an independent agency that has no allegiance to either one of the boards.

Jane Duckwall is a freelance writer: jbduckwall@gmail.com.