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ABSS proceeding with $26.9M in air quality upgrades but at half as many schools as first planned

Alamance-Burlington school board members voted this week to proceed with $26.9 million in air quality improvement projects – which represents a nearly $10 million reduction from the original budget of $37.5 million – at eight ABSS schools, rather than 16 schools, as originally planned.

The air quality upgrades will be funded by part of the federal stimulus money that ABSS received from the Covid-19 stimulus package passed by Congress in March 2021, as part of the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER III) Fund.

ABSS chief finance officer Jeremy Teetor had previously advised school board members last fall that the list of schools that would receive air quality upgrades might need to be halved, from 16 to eight, in order to use $10.5 million in ESSER III funding to give all existing full-time employees, and some part-time staff, a $3,000 bonus with their December paychecks. School board members voted 4-3 in late October 2021 to reallocate the money to the bonuses.

ABSS assistant superintendent of operations Dr. Todd Thorpe confirmed that to be the case during the school board’s work session Tuesday afternoon. “This list is a different length,” he recalled this week. “We’ve taken money and used it for different items.”

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Thorpe recommended using a “design-build” contract, under which a single contractor is responsible for all aspects of the design and construction, to complete the projects. “It’s a very defined scope of work – it’s HVAC – it will be assigned to a single contractor,” he told school board members this week. “It will be a 10-week project because we cannot open schools without HVAC.” The 10-week window for completing the projects would likely require night and weekend work.

That was how system-wide lighting upgrades were completed several years ago, Thorpe recalled Tuesday. Obsolete fluorescent lights were replaced with LED lights “using all night and weekend work,” he said.

“I’m sorry to ask you a question we haven’t discussed, but if for some reason the company gets pulled off, would we be protected?” ABSS interim superintendent Dr. Jim Merrill asked, referring to the possibility that a contractor could be called to do hurricane recovery work in the eastern part of the state.

The contract will include language requiring the work to be completed in a timely fashion, Thorpe assured Merrill.

The design-build construction method will enable ABSS to “lock in costs” early on, meaning it’s possible that air quality upgrades could be completed at the eight schools that have been eliminated from the original project list, Thorpe told The Alamance News Tuesday afternoon.

Some of the upgrades consist of installing “fresh air induction systems,” which capture air from the outside that’s then heated or cooled, depending upon the time of year, and injected into the heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning system, he explained.

Voting in late October to reallocate part of the money that had been earmarked for air quality upgrades for the bonuses were: then-school board members Sandy Ellington-Graves and Patsy Simpson, who were elected last month as the board’s chairman and vice chairman, respectively; and board members Ryan Bowden and Donna Westbrooks. Voting against the reallocation in late October 2021 were: Allison Gant and Tony Rose, then-chairman and vice chairman, respectively; and board member Wayne Beam, who said that they supported rewarding the staff but voiced concerns about the potential impact on the budget for the air quality projects.

“The schools that we did, unfortunately, take off the list need it as much as anybody else,” Gant pointed out during the last discussion Tuesday afternoon.

The final costs for the air quality projects at the eight schools could come in lower than his current estimate of $35 per square foot for HVAC work, or the budget for other capital projects could be adjusted to complete upgrades at other ABSS schools, Thorpe responded.

“As we move forward, we will know quickly our prices, so if there’s additional funding that we do not need, we can shift into that list to catch extra projects,” the assistant superintendent added.

School board members voted 6-0 Tuesday afternoon to move forward with the air quality upgrades. School board member Wayne Beam didn’t attend the meeting; nor did he participate by phone.

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