The top brass from the Alamance-Burlington school system may not have been feeling entirely thankful last week after their latest heart-to-heart with the county’s board of commissioners.
The school system’s higher ups had gone into this get-together on the Monday before Thanksgiving with a cornucopia of maintenance-related requests totaling roughly $8.8 million.
But when all was said and done, they walked away with barely $300,000 – as well as a rather rough dressing down from some of the sharper-tongued members of the county’s governing board.
Among the items that the commissioners chose not to bankroll that evening were some $5.2 million in outstanding mold-remediation expenses that date back to a massive, back-to-school cleanup that ultimately forced ABSS to postpone the start of the current school year by two weeks. The commissioners have also declined to replenish the school system’s annual capital allocation – a 12-month allowance of $3.3 million that had largely been drained by the aforementioned mold-remediation expenses.
In each of these cases, the commissioners insisted that they needed more time to consider the school system’s proposals.
“When you create a hole that large, it can’t be taken care of overnight. That process is going to have to take place over the next six months.”
– County commissioner Bill Lashley
“We can’t continue to come up with millions of dollars more for the school system. I don’t understand why you guys can’t get your stuff together at our annual budget.”
– County commissioner chairman John Paisley, Jr.
“When you create a hole that large, it can’t be taken care of overnight,” commissioner Bill Lashley said before he and his colleagues voted to put off their decision. “That process is going to have to take place over the next six months.”
“We can’t continue to come up with millions of dollars more for the school system,” added John Paisley, Jr., the chairman of Alamance County’s commissioners. “I don’t understand why you guys can’t get your stuff together at our annual budget.”
Raising [funds for] the roofs
As tightly as Paisley and his fellow commissioners might’ve clung to the purse strings last Monday, their showdown with the school system’s reps wasn’t a total loss for ABSS.
During the course of this confab, the school system’s administrators were able to wrest some $302,761 from the county’s governing board to help pay for a pair or reroofing projects that they insist could forestall the need for another costly round of mold remediation in at least two area schools.
To be more precise, the commissioners agreed to sink $124,881 into the construction of a new roof at Graham Middle School – a project that recently appeared among the school system’s 10 highest maintenance related priorities. They also allocated $177,880 for the design work to replace another roof that presently crowns Eastern High School.
The commissioners ultimately agreed to bankroll these projects using a combination of the school system’s own capital reserves and the interest on bond revenue that the county had obtained on behalf of the schools in 2021. The commissioners authorized each of these allocations at the suggestion of commissioner Craig Turner, who pointed out how eager the county’s higher ups have recently been to get the schools to pull the trigger on their roof repair needs.
“In addition to a [preventative] maintenance plan, we’ve been talking about roofs ever since I’ve been on the board,” he recalled. “We’ve been frustrated with the pace of getting roofs through the process, and we’re getting them through.”
The commissioners went on to vote 5-to-0 in favor of Turner’s proposal.
Despite their unanimous approval by the county’s governing board, these roofing-related requests were quite nearly bumped from last Monday’s agenda.
At the start of that evening’s proceedings, Paisley tried to convince his colleagues to postpone their consideration of all the requests that the school system had on the agenda. The board’s chairman argued that these various items ought to be addressed in December due to the school system’s allegedly belated handover of the accompany documents.
“We received some materials finally on Thursday [November 16] at noon and that was way too late [for] our agenda [which] had already been published,” Paisley went on to suggest.
“We were not able to include those materials, and I personally think it’s essential that you, Alamance County citizens, be able to see what the agenda consists of when it’s published…The general public needs to be able to know what we’re doing, and it needs to be timely.”
Paisley’s proposal got a second from Steve Carter, the vice chairman of Alamance County’s commissioners. It nevertheless fell flat with commissioner Craig Turner, who insisted that the board should at least hear what the school system’s representatives wanted from them.
“If the folks are here to present what they’ve got, I think we should at least hear it,” he declared.
Meanwhile, commissioner Pam Thompson observed that the documents which Paisley had found wanting had previously been uploaded to the school system’s own website.
“We’ve got some real important issues going on in our school system – post-mold,” she added, “and I think the more Alamance County can know about it the better…and I think we’re doing a real disserve by deferring these items to a later date.”
In the end, Lashley joined Thompson and Turner in their decision to hear the school system’s pleas – outweighing the objections from the board’s chairman and vice chairman.
Mold where that came from
The commissioners ultimately did more than just hear out the school system’s roofing-related requests; they also agreed to release the revenue to cover these expenses, which are relatively minor compared to the millions that they deferred.
But the county’s governing board proved more resolute when it came to the financial aftereffects of this summer’s mold infestation.
In order to address this crisis, the commissioners had previously set aside nearly $20.5 million from various accounts that the county controls on behalf of the school system. Greg Hook, the county’s chief operations officer, recalled that school system was also initially able to draw on the county’s annual maintenance allotment of $3.3 million when the first signs of mold were discovered at Andrews Elementary School in August. But as additional infestations appeared in other locations, the Alamance-Burlington administrators soon reached the limits of what they could shell out without the consent of the county’s governing board.
Hook reminded the commissioners that, even before the school system spotted the first inklings of invasive mold, he and his colleagues had already committed more than a third of their annual maintenance allotment on projects ranging from schoolhouse security to “kiddie mulch” for some of its playgrounds. He added that the school system’s initial reliance on these funds to cover its mold remediation expenses has left precious little to pay for other, pressing capital needs.
Hook noted that the commissioners eventually agreed to release another $16,182,870 from the school system’s capital reserves along with $1 million from the school system’s share of its haul from North Carolina’s state lottery.
Hook added that even with the millions released by the county, the schools were initially left with some $5,700,515.71 in unpaid invoices from this summer’s epic housecleaning. He conceded that Steve Carter, the vice chairman of Alamance County’s commissioners, was able to convince the school system’s primary mold removal contractor to restructure his charges for dehumidifier rentals in order to bring down the school system’s unpaid balance to $5,234.558.96.
Hook went on to ask the commissioners for some additional funds to pay off this outstanding balance and, moreover, to replenish the annual maintenance allotment that the school system had received from the county when the current financial cycle began on July 1.
The time to talk turkey…is December
In the end, though, the commissioners were simply not sure how to approach Hook’s multifaceted ask on behalf of the schools.
“I don’t know what the answer is by any stretch of the imagination right now,” Steve Carter said in what may have been the summative statement of the entire meeting. “We are asking our [county] administration to take a look at this and come back with some ideas on how to solve this problem.”
Meanwhile, Lashley drew on his professional experience as a commodities trader to propose that the school system conduct some “technical forensic accounting” to find a way out of its current predicament.
“It doesn’t get us anywhere when we continue to blame each other. I think we have beat up the school system enough…Now is the time to man up and make this work.” – County commissioner Pam Thompson
Commissioner Pam Thompson, who served on the Alamance-Burlington school board before she joined the commissioners, insisted that she and her colleagues should continue to meet with the school system’s leaders until they’ve resolved their mutual conundrums.
“It doesn’t get us anywhere when we continue to blame each other,” she said. “I think we have beat up the school system enough…Now is the time to man up and make this work.”
The blame game, however, was still very much in play for Paisley, who continued to hammer away at a series of staff-level bonuses that the school system had paid out with pandemic relief funds that were initially set aside for maintenance-related expenses. Paisley also demanded personal accountability for this summer’s mold infestation from relative newcomers to the school system like Hook, who joined ABSS’s executive team roughly six months ago.
“We’re talking about a lot of tax dollars to correct a mistake the school system made,” he added. “Who is responsible for this error?”
The one thing that the commissioners seemed to agree on, however, is that they weren’t prepared to contend with these issues before Thanksgiving. To wit, they voted 5-to-0 to resume their consideration of the school system’s requests at their next meeting on December 4.