Monday, February 26, 2024

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Graham, NC 27253
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Another ABSS “hair on fire” funding emergency

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Alamance County commissioners have been relatively patient, in our view, in hearing the repeated – always urgent and almost monthly – pleas (often expressed as demands) for more and more and more spending for the Alamance-Burlington school system.

The latest fable of The Boy Who Cried Wolf once too often is the decision of school officials to hold a “press conference” this afternoon where they intend to “provide detail on the scope of the funding crisis.”

The ultimate objective?

You guessed it: “to demand greater investment in public education” from the commissioners, according to a highly politicized press release put out by the school system.

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We just love the euphemisms used by school officials, which in this case, have been lifted almost verbatim from the Governor’s so-called “State of Emergency” for public school funding earlier this year.

Here’s our favorite: “After years of financial strain, ABSS now confronts a critical budget crisis that threatens the education and opportunities of over 22,000 students in Alamance County.”

“Years of financial strain”?  That’s an almost laughable exaggeration.

It’s more like years of financial irresponsibility by school officials and school board members.

It’s hard to imagine that school officials can utter such nonsense with a straight face inasmuch as they’ve received over $390 million for the 2022-23 fiscal year – from local, state, and federal sources.

School board members get so tired of hearing it – probably because it cuts so close to the heart of their irresponsibility – but commissioner chairman John Paisley, Jr. rather repeatedly draws a bead on the fact that school board members consciously squandered $10.3 million on bonuses for school employees in 2021.  And then turned around and squandered another $8.3 million in 2022 for more bonuses.

So guess where the school board members  “found” the money to bestow this largesse on teachers and every other school system employee and bureaucrat – on a controversial, 4-3 vote, by the way?

From funds that were supposed to be used for air quality issues across the school system. Air quality upgrades that had been planned for 16 schools are now in progress for only a handful of schools – with what little money was left over after the raids for bonuses.

School board members who made that decision try to divert attention away from it – acting as though their irresponsible actions of one and two years ago, or even earlier this year with six kinds of bonuses, have no bearing on their current budget predicament.

So now the school system officials are running around with a “hair on fire” attitude like there’s a huge emergency.

If there’s an emergency, it’s one of their own making.  While school superintendent Dr. Dain Butler always responds that the first raises didn’t happen on his watch – but before his arrival – the three school board members who voted for them (chairman Sandy Ellington-Graves, vice chairman Ryan Bowden, and Donna Westbrooks) cannot escape their expensive and entirely discretionary action (i.e., mistake in spending what lavish funds they otherwise would have).

Joining the list of culprits has to be school board member Chuck Marsh, who while not on the board, has gone out of his way to defend and enthusiastically support, ex post facto, the previous board’s decision to raid its federal Covid relief funding for the multi-million dollar bonuses.

School officials seem always to have an 11th-hour emergency that only “more money” will fix.

They played the same stunt on June 19, when they hollered that they “just had to have” more money in their annual budget from the county – even though just a few weeks before they had generally agreed with the generous allocation that county officials had already provided.

Oh, yes, we’re quite aware that the newest crisis is, school officials claim, because of mold remediation, something ABSS claims wasn’t known on June 19 when the budget was set.

What they ignore, again, is any role in having created the problem that gave rise to costing $26 million – and possibly much more, if commissioners don’t hold the line on spending.

Their poor judgment to use millions for bonuses over and over again is a “moot point,” school board members insist – “we must move beyond disagreements over previous policies and decisions,” school board members piously pontificate.

No one from the school system has yet identified the irresponsible employees who apparently decided to “save money” by turning off the air conditioning in school buildings over the hot and humid summer – and, inexplicably, also turned off the sensors that would have alerted them when conditions inside the buildings reached crisis levels.

Here’s another irony.  School officials have decided to stage their outrage at Cummings High School in an “unfinished classroom still requiring repairs from recent toxic mold.”

Leave it to school officials to decide to postpone fixing a classroom that apparently had some of the most extensive damage (depriving students there of at least one classroom); we guess they think it makes a better prop for their rantings.

School officials always try to “pressure” commissioners to “make a greater investment” – their high-minded phrase for “spend more tax money”– for public education.

In reality, this is just another in a long line of school system attempts to avoid responsibility and try to pin blame (always) on someone other than themselves.

Oh, and lest we forget, school officials also like to ignore other indications of their failings, such as were revealed in the  most recent audit of school system finances.

It seems the school system went over budget last fiscal year and drained its savings, according to their auditor, which is yet another reason they don’t have any available funds.

But, again, whose fault is that?

No one but themselves. But it wasn’t enough of a concern to preclude the school board from awarding superintendent Butler a whopping 10½ percent, $20,800, raise (to $218,400), a month before the fiscal year ended.

We had such high hopes for the “new” superintendent when he took over in July 2022 and the current school board after three new members were elected in November 2022.

Instead, both seem to be following the legacy of failed administrations and sorry school boards from years past.

What a disappointment.

Situation normal at ABSS.

What will it take to get it straightened out?

Back during one of their joint meetings on the mold crisis, hotheaded new member Chuck Marsh challenged county commissioners to take over responsibility for the school’s facilities if they thought they could do a better job.

While he probably meant it as a hollow threat, maybe that’s what it would take to get on the road to better school facilities.

The school system apparently seeks to ignore the study that commissioners asked for several months ago (which will apparently take another few months to complete) to assess the condition of both county buildings and school facilities.

At the national level, there are Inspectors General at each major federal department, whose jobs are independent from the administration. Their job is to ferret out, or at least expose, fraud, waste, and abuse in programs within the departments they oversee.

We think county commissioners might need to establish that kind of position to “ride herd” over the school system – so that problems and shortcomings can be identified early, instead of in a “budget crisis” climate. Even if the supposed crisis is one self-imposed by school officials.

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