Thursday, February 29, 2024

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ALAMANCE NEWS EXCLUSIVE, BREAKING MON.: General Assembly commission to investigate ABSS finances

Senator Amy Galey, who represents Alamance County in the General Assembly, revealed Monday morning that she has asked the Joint Legislative Commission on Governmental Operations (“Gov Ops”) to investigate the Alamance-Burlington school system’s policies and financial decisions.

“It appears to me that ABSS is having a lot of trouble communicating its problems in a way that the public can understand. And one explanation seems to lead to more questions, so this will give ABSS an opportunity to demonstrate what it’s been doing and hopefully be vindicated, and then the community can move on.  But if there were things that were done that should not have been, the appropriate people can be held accountable – we can all learn from our mistakes.”

– State senator Amy Galey

The school system’s latest financial crisis was outlined in a statement that ABSS issued Friday night, warning that a funding crunch could lead to the elimination and/or reduced months of employment for 54 employees.

Meanwhile, Alamance County’s commissioners voted to give ABSS a $250,000 short-term lifeline to stave off a potential Reduction-in-Force (RIF) that superintendent Dr. Dain Butler warned of in his Friday night press release.

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Galey sent school board members and the commissioners an email outlining her concerns about the school system’s funding situation while the commissioners’ meeting was still in progress Monday morning.

“Recent events and announcements have given rise to questions about the proposed RIF as well as use of capital funds in recent years,” Galey wrote in her email.  “Many members of the ABSS community and the general public have reached out to me with questions about the direction ABSS is headed.  Not being an accountant or expert in school finance, I am unqualified to address their concerns, many of which I share.”

Galey goes on to note in her email that she has asked the GovOps commission – whose powers were expanded under the budget the General Assembly passed in 2023 as a result of languishing hurricane recovery efforts in the eastern part of the state – to do a deeper dive into the the school system’s finances.

“It is of upmost importance that the Alamance-Burlington School System is managed in a fiscally responsible manner, with good decisions and appropriate planning,” Galey wrote in the email she sent to the school system and county government Monday morning.

While the state senator said repeatedly she hopes this will be the case, she also noted, “it appears that the public has lost confidence in the ability of the ABSS administration, and reassurance would go far to restore relationships and trust.”

Galey said Monday afternoon in an interview with The Alamance News that, while she has received numerous inquiries from people throughout the community, one of the first things to raise her antenna was the potential elimination of a popular Spanish immersion program, called “Splash” for short, that has been in place for at least a decade.  “I don’t understand why that would be necessary,” Galey said.

There was sufficient funding in the ABSS budget prior to Covid, and before the school system received approximately $83 million in federal stimulus funding during the pandemic, Galey pointed out.

“I have asked the chair of the school board and superintendent questions, and I just don’t understand their answers.”

– State senator amy galey

“It seems illogical they would get more money and would result in them needing to cut the budget years later,” Galey said, referring to the federal Covid-19 stimulus relief funding that ABSS received.  “It doesn’t follow; to cut back [to pre-Covid funding levels] doesn’t make sense to me.  I have asked the chair of the school board and superintendent questions, and I just don’t understand their answers.”

“The top of the pyramid questions I’ve heard,” Galey elaborated, “is why didn’t they know about this in May or June of 2023 that they were going to have a budget crisis in the spring of 2024? It seems they would have a spreadsheet that projects their funds from month-to-month and whether they’re going to be on target.”

 

Legislative inquiry spurred by mold, roofs, and possible RIFs

Galey said several recent announcements from ABSS prompted her to want to ask GovOps to look into the school system’s finances – not only the announcement about potential RIFs on Friday night, but also the leaky roofs reported at seven schools following a massive rainstorm on January 9, and the widespread mold contamination in ABSS schools.

While the state senator said she’s not sure how long it will take for GovOps to complete its review, she’s hopeful that she’ll have some sort of results by the time the short session convenes in late April.  “If we’re going to have a legislative solution, we need to get it ready,” said Galey.

“It appears to me that ABSS is having a lot of trouble communicating its problems in a way that the public can understand,” the senator told the newspaper.  “And one explanation seems to lead to more questions, so this will give ABSS an opportunity to demonstrate what it’s been doing and hopefully be vindicated, and then the community can move on.  But if there were things that were done that should not have been, the appropriate people can be held accountable – we can all learn from our mistakes.”

Galey stressed, “This is really important: if the problem is because of ESSER [federal stimulus from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funding for Covid], there is not going to be an appropriation to backfill ESSER funds.  I am certain the General Assembly is not going to put itself in the position of bailing out school systems that misused ESSER funds.

“I want to emphasize,” she added, “I am not accusing anybody of doing anything wrong.  There’s just been so many questions from the community, ‘what is going on?’ This will give an opportunity for clarity and transparency, and if needed, accountability.”

Butler and school board chairman Sandy Ellington-Graves have warned of a potential RIF on three separate occasions over the past seven months: Butler, on June 19, 2023, just before the commissioners were to adopt a county budget for the fiscal year (commissioners added $867,000 in response to that plea); Ellington-Graves during a press conference at Cummings High School on November 30, at which she outlined “a critical budget crisis” and called on the commissioners “to make good on the funding they have already committed to us,” following the $27.2 million spent for mold remediation in 33 facilities; and Butler in his February 2 press release.

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