Thursday, June 13, 2024

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Graham, NC 27253
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JOINT MEETING PART 1: Commissioners vote $3.5 million for mold cleanup at three more schools

All members of the Alamance-Burlington school board, the county commissioners, and the three members of the state’s legislative delegation met Monday afternoon to discuss the emerging crisis of mold in the schools, which had prompted the school superintendent to impose a week’s delay in the opening of school.

While commissioner chairman John Paisley, Jr. expressed the view early on that the meeting was simply for information, he was ultimately overridden by a motion from fellow commissioner Craig Turner who proposed to spend $3.5 million for mold remediation at Broadview Middle School and Cummings and Williams high schools.

The school district has already spent $1.2 million for mold remediation at Andrews and Newlin elementary schools, the first two schools where mold had been confirmed.

The presence of mold at several area schools has mushroomed into a pressing priority not only for the Alamance-Burlington school board but also for Alamance County’s board of commissioners.

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The board of commissioners agreed to set aside $3.5 million on Monday for emergency cleanups at three of the five schools where explosions of mold have already prompted a week-long delay in the start of the new school year for the entire Alamance-Burlington school system. The commissioners also agreed to reconvene later this week with the school board to take a look at the 15 to 20 other schools that may have similar infestations of mold lurking behind their ceilings and walls.

The commissioners ultimately signed off on this seven-figure outlay during a special joint meeting with the Alamance-Burlington school board on Monday afternoon. This three-hour confab, which also included the county’s three delegates to North Carolina’s General Assembly, gave both boards a chance to air all sorts of pent-up recriminations, while quibbling over their financial priorities.

In the end, the commissioners agreed to bail out the schools from their current debacle despite many lingering questions about the cost and extent of the mold infestations.

“I certainly wish we had more information,” county commissioner Craig Turner declared before he made the motion to release the aforementioned $3.5 million from one of the county’s capital reserve funds. “But you don’t always have the information you want in life, and you still have to make a call.”


A spore point to discuss

The school system’s top brass had originally requested this powwow last week after reports of mold at Andrews and Newlin elementary schools were followed by similar discoveries at Broadview Middle School, as well as Cummings and Williams high schools.

By the time that Monday’s meeting began at 3:00 p.m., the school system had largely addressed the problems at Andrews and Newlin elementary schools, the first two school where mold had been discovered. Yet, the emergency remediations at these two schools had cost something in the neighborhood of $1.2 million, leaving just $250,000 in the county-subsidized account that the school system uses to cover various pay-as-you-go maintenance projects.

[Story continues below photos and quotes from participants.]

State senator Amy Galey

            “You have the money [Galey told school board members]. But you don’t want to spend it on this because there are other things you want to spend it on…I’m having trouble justifying holding funds aside to remedy learning loss when you’re going to have a week of learning loss anyway [due to the postponement of the first day of school].”

– State senator Amy Galey


County commissioner Pam Thompson

            “Right now is walking into the school building — nothing else matters but that. Everybody at this table has to do whatever it takes.”

– County commissioner Pam Thompson


County commissioner Bill Lashley

“How can you ask me for money today when you don’t know what the cost is going to be?”

– County commissioner Bill Lashley


ABSS school superintendent Dr. Dain Butler

“I don’t have a dollar number for you today. But I need a commitment from you. We have five schools right now, but we can’t wait for more to come up because we won’t have anywhere to shuffle these kids around.”

– ABSS supt. Dr. Dain Butler

In the wake of these outlays, the school system was hard pressed to fund the costly cleanups that it knew were in order at Broadview, Cummings, and Williams. Meanwhile, a growing number of other schools had reported problems ranging from roof leaks to discolorations that the school system’s administrators said could be harbingers of further mold contamination.

As the number of mold-ridden facilities has continued to grow the school system’s top brass have reluctantly turned to Alamance County’s leaders for the money they’ll need to address the dilemma.

Several years ago, the county’s administrators had convinced the school system and Alamance Community College to pool their own capital reserves with the county’s to create a single account under the county’s control. It was this communal fund that the school board had hoped to dip into to cover the rapidly escalating cost of their mold remediation activities.

Sandy Ellington Graves, the chairman of the Alamance-Burlington school board, had appealed to the better natures of her county-level counterparts to get them to loosen the purse strings for this communal fund.

“We are here today with a tremendous sense of urgency to get students back into classrooms,” she told the commissioners at the start of Monday’s joint meeting. “Yes, we have struggled to maintain our buildings over the years with staff shortages, lack of funding, and even Covid-related mandates. But clearly there is a race against the clock, and I am confident that through open dialogue and by looking forward we can find solutions to the issues at hand.”

Yet, the county’s governing board was initially a bit wary to give the school system access to these communal reserves.

In fact, John Paisley, Jr., the chairman of Alamance County’s commissioners, declared early on that he and his colleagues would release no funds at Monday’s joint meeting due to the many unanswered questions about the causes, the cost, and the extent of the school system’s problems with mold.

“We county commissioners are dedicated to ABSS and our students,” he insisted. “But it is unlikely that we county commissioners will be able to dedicate money today…We must have information in order to act upon…and I don’t think we can move forward with dedicating money until we understand what’s happening.”

That hesitation, however, would be overwhelmed subsequently by a motion to provide $3.5 million.


The hows and whys

The school system’s representatives tried to address some of these questions through a thorough overview of the mold situation itself and the measures they plan to take to remedy the matter.

Greg Hook said that the school system’s current crisis began with the discovery of “pervasive mold” at Andrews Elementary School. He added that contractors have since gotten a handle on the problem at that campus. Contractors are still on site at Newlin, which was the second school to report mold and which has an air circulation system similar to the one at Andrews.

Hook said that the subsequent discovery of mold at Cummings convinced him and his colleagues to temporarily close the campus to students. Since then, faculty at Broadview have been shut out of the cafeteria, where additional mold has turned up, while a report of mold in a classroom at Williams put that school on lockdown as well.

Greg Hook, ABSS Chief Operating Officer

Hook told the commissioners that contractors in the school system’s employ have largely assessed the extent of the mold outbreaks at these three schools as well as the many others that have reported roof leaks and the like.

“We’re are doing spot tests of all of the schools,” he added, “and we can get testing done at all our sites hopefully by Monday – a week from today.”

Hook said that the school system’s contractors consider any facility they test if it contains greater concentrations of mold spores than the outside environment. He went on to describe the techniques which these specialists use to gauge the spore levels inside each of the schools they examine.

“They have a biologist at Williams who takes a microscope out and counts spores in the sample,” he recalled. “They determined that they have over 7,000 spores per cubic meter, which is very high…The tester at Cummings said it was the worst he’s ever seen.”

Hook added that the fungi which these tests have so far identified is not the sort of toxic black mold that has become the stuff of horror stories.

“What we’re seeing is Aspergillus penicillioides,” he elaborated. “It’s not toxigenic. It’s allergenic.”

Even so, Hook acknowledged that the removal of this mold involves more than just spraying surfaces with Tilex. He said that the work crews at Newlin and Andrews have been “running air washers” which “turn the air 20 or 30 times” to remove not just mold spores but other impurities as well.

Hook conceded that inadequate roofs and HVAC systems may be among the problems contributing to the mold infestation. He added, however, that the underlying causes will probably vary somewhat from one school to another.

“We’ll have to determine what is the cause at each site,” he said, “and we’re assessing it as we go through. For instance, at Williams, it’s very humid at the lower level [or basement]…The water is traveling through the cracks in the concrete steps and causing an effervescent push through the brickwork.”

Ben Bass with Builder Services of Creedmoor went on to provide some additional details about the remediation process. Bass told the meeting’s participants that his company is uniquely positioned to bring overwhelming force to bear against mold infestations in public facilities.

Ben Bass of Builder Services

“We’ve done millions upon millions of square feet of schools in North Carolina,” he elaborated. “When we come to town, we bring an army…I have almost 2,000 people standing by at my place in Louisiana…I have people ready to go in Georgia…I can clean every school campus you have in seven days or less.”

Bass said that his legions of work crews could potentially have all of the school system’s facilities free of mold by the time classes begin on September 5. He added, however, that his company’s seemingly bottomless reserve of manpower may start to diminish later this week as the first hurricanes of the season make their way toward the Continental U.S.

“Right now, I’m talking about bringing 3,000 of these people to Alamance County to clean these schools,” he added, “But if we wait until Wednesday and Thursday, I may only be able to bring 500.”

The school system’s representatives insisted that they have little choice but to commission Bass’ work crews to bring all their resources to bear on the school system rather than have to postpone classes indefinitely due to outbreaks of mold.

“I will not tolerate bandaiding the problem and making it look like we’ve fixed it,” Dain Butler, the school system’s superintendent, propounded. “These are our two options. Fix the problem, and send the kids back, or just send them back into that environment.”



Financial raid

The commissioners, for their part, spent quite a bit of time rooting through the school system’s finances to find enough readily available cash to pay for these remediations.

They first turned their attention to the school system’s pay-as-you-go maintenance funds, which Kimberly McVeigh, the school system’s chief finance officer, admitted had dropped from $1.6 million to about $252,000 due to expenditures for the cleanups at Newlin and Andrews.

Commissioner Bill Lashley proposed that the county could replenish these funds by giving the school system “the balance” of the $3.3 million that it’s slated to get this fiscal year for pay-as-you-go maintenance. In the meantime, however, he fixed his sights on four other funds where he suspected the school system could get the money it needs.

The funds which Lashley pored over included the school system’s $14.9 million in “restricted” reserves, which have been set aside, but not yet expended, for various projects. Lashley suggested that these funds should be liquidated to pay for the more urgent priority of mold remediation. He also encouraged the school system to dip into the surplus funds that are beginning to emerge from the $150 million bond package that area voters approved in 2018.

Hooks nevertheless stressed that this excess is supposed to go toward security upgrades at the same schools where the bond-funded construction has been taking place.

Meanwhile, Lashley homed in on the school system’s cache of coronavirus relief funds, which reportedly contains about $34 million. The school board has previously earmarked about $26 million of these funds for HVAC upgrades that may address some of the underlying issues responsible for the mold infestations. Lashley nevertheless argued that these HVAC outlays are now a lower priority than the immediate problem of mold remediation.

Lashley was joined in his call to reallocate these funds by state senator Amy Scott Galey, who criticized the schools for devoting a portion of these Covid relief funds to tutoring and other measures meant to address “learning loss” from the pandemic.

“You have the money,” she cried. “But you don’t want to spend it on this because there are other things you want to spend it on…I’m having trouble justifying holding funds aside to remedy learning loss when you’re going to have a week of learning loss anyway [due to the postponement of the first day of school].”

Galey soon got into a tug-of-war with the school system’s administrators over whether federal regulations even allow Covid relief funds to be used for mold abatement that’s not directly related to the coronavirus pandemic.

In the meantime, some of Lashley’s fellow commissioners began casting about for other potential sources of funds at the school system’s disposal. Paisley, for one, repeatedly invoked the money that the school system receives from fines and forfeitures that defendants pay into the local courts system. But the $800,000 that these penalties generate in the course of the year were neither sufficient nor immediately available to cover the school system’s needs.

After what seemed like an eternity of nitpicking the school system’s finances, commissioner Pam Thompson turned the magnifying glass back on to the county. Thompson pointed out that the county currently has $10 million in capital reserves that are set aside for a proposed courthouse expansion that doesn’t even appear in the county’s current annual budget.

Thompson went on to exhort her fellow commissioners to do what it takes to relieve the school system of its present predicament.

“Right now is walking into the school building — nothing else matters but that,” she said. “Everybody at this table has to do whatever it takes.”


Breaking the mold

Yet, Thompson’s revelation of the funds in the county’s own kitty wasn’t enough to convince a majority of the commissioners to pledge their financial support to the school system. The problem at that juncture was that the school board still hadn’t nailed down the cost of this work – only that it wanted the county to pick up the tab, not knowing exactly how much it would be.

“How can you ask me for money today when you don’t know what the cost is going to be?” commissioner Lashley objected, capturing the prevailing mood of the county’s elected leaders.

“I don’t have a dollar number for you today. But I need a commitment from you,” superintendent Dain Butler replied. “We have five schools right now, but we can’t wait for more to come up because we won’t have anywhere to shuffle these kids around.”

“We really can’t put this on our agenda…until we know your needs and have hard numbers,” Paisley shot back. “You guys have the money. Make the repairs and get our kids back into school.”

“The clock is ticking to get our kids into the school building – in a safe and clean and healthy environment,” retorted school board member Ryan Bowden. “What I need is a commitment from at least three of y’all that you will help us down the road.”

School board member Ryan Bowden

Galey ultimately tried to coax the two sides out of their impasse by flattering the preoccupations of both the commissioners and their counterparts on the school board.

“You have the cash,” she told the school system’s representatives at one point. “But you have commitments for the cash to fix the underlying issue…So it would be reasonable for the county to say ‘we can’t loosen up the cash now…you pay for it now and we will pay for it later because the most important thing is to get those kids back into the classroom.’

“We need to make a decision now,” the state senator added, “not dither around, and God forbid we go back to virtual learning. People have PTSD over virtual learning.”

In the end, it wasn’t Galey’s intercession so much as some back-of-the envelope calculations from Bass that broke the logjam at Monday’s joint meeting.

During a five-minute break, the rep from Builder Services ran the numbers for mold remediation at the three schools with the most pressing outbreaks and figured that his crews could clean up Cummings for $1.2 million, Broadview for $750,000, and Williams for another $1.55 million.

Commissioner Craig Turner proceeded to suggest that he and his colleagues draw this combined sum of $3.5 million from the county’s capital reserves and transfer it to the Alamance-Burlington school system. Paisley initially tried to derail Turner’s gambit by claiming his motion was out of order – only to be shot down by the county attorney. The board’s chairman then joined his fellow commissioners in their 5-to-0 decision to allocate the funds as Turner proposed.

County commissioner Craig Turner

The commissioners went on to recess their joint meeting until 10:00 a.m. on Wednesday, at which point they agreed to address any issues that may arise at the 15 to 20 schools with potential signs of mold infestation. The school board also recessed its own proceedings until that same date and time.

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