Alamance-Burlington school board members decided this week to give ABSS employees an early Christmas gift, unexpectedly voting Monday night to give all employees – full time and part-time – a $3,000 bonus that they will get in their December paychecks.
The school board voted, 4-3, to pay for the $10.5 million in bonuses with a portion of the money ABSS received from the Covid-19 stimulus package that Congress passed earlier this year, as part of the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER III) Fund.
ABSS has a received a total of $77,475,891 in federal Covid-19 relief funding from all three stimulus packages that Congress has passed since March 2020, ABSS chief finance officer Jeremy Teetor confirmed Tuesday for The Alamance News.
Voting for the bonuses were school board members Patsy Simpson, Ryan Bowden, Sandy Ellington-Graves, and Donna Westbrooks.
Voting against were board chairman Allison Gant, vice chairman Tony Rose, and school board member Wayne Beam.
All existing employees will receive the $3,000 bonus with their December paychecks; new employees who are hired by January 3, 2022 also would receive a $3,000 bonus.
Bonuses for substitute teachers would be split in half: subs who work an average of at least 20-full time days as of the end of next month will receive a $500 bonus; those who work an additional 20 full-time days as of the end of March 2022 would receive another $500 bonus, based on the bonuses that school board members voted 4-3 to approve Monday night.
A second option that school officials had estimated for the board called for paying all full-time and part-time employees a $5,000 bonus, which would’ve cost $6.7 million more and totaled $17.2 million.
The basis for the bonuses appears to be the ongoing challenges that ABSS is experiencing with filling vacant positions, along with Covid-19 fatigue that existing employees attributed this week to shouldering additional job responsibilities. Six ABSS employees told school board members Monday night that they’re struggling to keep up with extra duties this year.
The costs for both options – the $3,000 bonus for all permanent employees and two payments of $500 for substitute teachers, versus a $5,000 bonus for all permanent employees and two $500 bonuses for subs – also reflect the school system’s expenses for required matching contributions to the state and federal benefits systems, according to Jeremy Teetor, who is also currently serving as acting superintendent while superintendent Dr. Bruce Benson is on a medical leave of absence.
Board voted in August to use federal stimulus for air quality upgrades, temporary positions
The dissenters insisted Monday night that they needed more time to discuss potential ramifications of taking the funds from the air quality projects and other expenditures that the board voted in late August to fund with the same pot of federal stimulus money.
School board members voted 6-1 in late August to accept a recommendation by the ABSS administration to use $69.5 million in federal Covid-19 stimulus money for air quality improvement projects, technology expenses, and to fund 74 temporary teaching and academic support positions.
Simpson voted against accepting the administration’s recommendation in August, saying she preferred to spend the money on people who work directly with students, such as hiring additional teaching assistants, rather than creating new, temporary positions for data coaches and intervention specialists to analyze academic performance data and identify students’ academic needs. She recalled during the earlier discussion that ABSS had tried that approach many times over the years – by hiring graduation coaches and other kinds of specialists – but it hadn’t demonstrated any appreciable improvements in academic performance.
Simpson and Bowden also previously voted against a county budget request earlier this year that designated millions in federal stimulus funding for remediation positions to assist with learning loss that state officials have attributed to a statewide school closure following the emergence of Covid-19 that, for ABSS and much of the state, lasted from March 2020 until March 2021.
Allocation for air quality projects reduced from $37.5M to $26.9M
Teetor said Monday night that using part of the federal ESSER III funding for bonuses would require a reduction in the set-aside for air quality improvements, from $37.5 million to $26.9 million. ABSS originally planned to complete unspecified “air quality projects” at 16 ABSS schools; the school system could still fully fund eight of those projects, Teetor said.
“You’re talking about pulling funds from the original ESSER funds, from when we talked about the HVAC projects,” Gant said Monday night, asking Teetor whether he’d discussed the potential shift with Dr. Todd Thorpe, assistant superintendent of operations for ABSS. “Has Dr. Thorpe’s team had an opportunity to dig into this?”
Presiding over the school board’s latest meeting Monday night, Teetor explained that ABSS hasn’t “engaged any architects or engineers to put the plans in place” for the air quality projects. He also recalled that he’d discussed the possibility of using part of the Covid-19 stimulus funding for bonuses with Benson in August.
“We can get the best state-of the-art ventilation system in the world, but if we don’t have the people in the building, what good is it?” Bowden asked.
“We can get the best state-of the-art ventilation system in the world, but if we don’t have the people in the building, what good is it?”
– School board member Ryan Bowden
“These are the people who make the wheels go ‘round every day. I feel like our people need to hear and to see we appreciate them.”
– School board member Sandy Ellington-Graves
“I agree. I think if we have the opportunity to make some changes that will improve [our employees’] peace of mind, just for a little bit, we need to do it.”
– School board member Donna Westbrooks
Teetor said he’d started “receiving questions” about using part of the federal Covid-19 stimulus funding for bonuses from board members last Thursday evening. He said he “ran the numbers” and put together some information in case it came up at this week’s meeting.
The day before, on October 20, school board members had voted 4-3 at a special-called meeting to appoint Teetor to temporarily handle the superintendent’s duties and to grant Benson a temporary leave of absence due to what is said to be a brain bleed or cerebral hemorrhage.
“These are the people who make the wheels go ‘round every day,” Ellington-Graves said Monday night. “I feel like our people need to hear and to see we appreciate them.”
“I agree,” said Westbrooks. “I think if we have the opportunity to make some changes that will improve [our employees’] peace of mind, just for a little bit, we need to do it.”
“Of course, I’m for it; I have a lot of faith in our CFO,” said Simpson, who earlier during the meeting had asked to amend the school board’s agenda to include a discussion about using part of the federal Covid-19 stimulus money to provide bonuses to ABSS employees. “I think we heard directly from numerous people in the audience tonight as to why we should be having this discussion,” she said, referring to the six people who identified themselves as ABSS employees and told school board members during the public comments portion of their meeting about how this school year has been one of the most challenging in their careers.
‘Not local taxpayer dollars’
“Yes, these are taxpayer dollars, but these are not local taxpayer dollars; these are dollars the federal government has given us,” Simpson said Monday night. “What a great time it is to say – as we all say – this is a difficult time; you’ve put in a lot work; we have asked you to do so many things [outside of your regular work duties]. I always talk about the climate of our school system; therefore, I’ve asked the acting superintendent to speak with the staff and [see] what we can do to [use part of the federal stimulus funding] to give a Christmas bonus.” If other things need to be cut to fund the bonuses, Simpson added, “I’m 100 percent for it.”
“Yes, these are taxpayer dollars, but these are not local taxpayer dollars; these are dollars the federal government has given us. What a great time it is to say – as we all say – this is a difficult time; you’ve put in a lot work; we have asked you to do so many things [outside of your regular work duties]. I always talk about the climate of our school system; therefore, I’ve asked the acting superintendent to speak with the staff and [see] what we can do to [use part of the federal stimulus funding] to give a Christmas bonus.”
– School board member Patsy Simpson
School board member Bowden said that, after visiting ABSS schools and speaking with employees over the past few weeks, he’d come to realize “they’re hurting,” and said he is 100 percent in support of rewarding their efforts.
“[They] don’t do it for the money, but once in a while it feels good to [hear] thank you,” said Westbrooks, a former ABSS administrator who retired in 2017 and currently serves as director for the First School of Elon, a preschool based at United Methodist Church of Elon.
School board member Wayne Beam he also supported the idea but would prefer to have more information before voting.
Rose said that, while he “ideologically supports” awarding bonuses to ABSS employees, he pressed his fellow school board members to move the discussion to their next meeting on November 9 so they can weigh the ramifications of reallocating the funds.
“I see that we’re presenting this tonight for the first time, but it was just a short time ago when we had a lot of people in this auditorium making many, many comments about air quality because of Covid,” the vice chairman said Monday night. “I think we need to consider what we’re doing here a little slower…I do think this is a process foul, trying to do [it] this quickly.”
For her part, Simpson had lodged a similar charge back in August – saying the board hadn’t had a full discussion about potential uses for the federal stimulus money – before voting against the administration’s recommendation to allocate a remaining $69.5 million in federal Covid-19 relief funding to air quality projects and temporary positions. She had also previously asked the administration about rewarding individual employees who’ve assumed additional job duties and/or students as a result of staffing shortage.
Approximately 260 classified (meaning those not requiring state licensure) are currently vacant, Eastern High School teacher Medora Burke Scoll told school board members during their public comments period Monday night.
ABSS currently has 2,934 employees, representing a decline of about 96 employees from the 3,030 employees that ABSS had during the 2020-21 school year, Teetor confirmed for the newspaper this week.
By comparison, Teetor said Wednesday that ABSS had 2,805 employees during the 2019-20 school year, or 129 fewer employees than the school system has this school year.
“There’s been plenty of times when the shoe was on the other foot, and we’ve rubber-stamped things,” Bowden told Rose this week, just before the first-term board member made a motion to award the bonuses.
“I’ve heard you many times say, ‘let’s move it to the next meeting so we can get more input,’” Rose shot back.”We need staff input right here; that’s $10 million.”
“This was something that came up late last week,” Gant said. “I do think it requires some serious thoughts about where that would come from.”
Simpson acknowledged this week that air quality problems have been reported at ABSS schools “for years,” and while Covid-19 has magnified them, it’s unlikely those problems can be fixed overnight. “This is in line with everything we say in the strategic plan,” she pointed out, adding that the board can look for other ways to finance the air quality projects.
“I can’t do it tonight; I don’t feel the process was done appropriately,” the school board’s chairman said later in the discussion. “Please do not take this as I do not support [our staff] because I do.”
Most existing ABSS employees will receive the bonuses by December 17, Teetor said Monday night.