Wednesday, April 17, 2024

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Commissioners call for facilities assessment of school system – and county’s own buildings

Alamance County’s board of commissioners has decided to obtain a professional assessment of all the roofs and HVACs maintained by the local school system – and, for good measure, each of those under the county’s own aegis as well.

The commissioners unanimously approved this global evaluation of roofs and air circulation systems on Monday as they grappled with the fallout from the mold remediation crisis that recently gripped the Alamance-Burlington school system.

The commissioners initially agreed to review all of the school system’s roofs and HVACs at the behest of John Paisley, Jr., the chairman of Alamance County’s commissioners.

County commissioner chairman John Paisley, Jr.

Paisley had originally proposed this sweeping evaluation in the midst of a report from the school system about some of the reroofing projects that it currently has in the offing. The school system’s top brass had scheduled this presentation in order to obtain the county’s permission to fund the design work on new roofs at three area schools. Yet the anticipated turnaround time for this work, which was estimated at seven to eight months before construction could start, left the chairman of Alamance County’s commissioners casting about for another, more expeditious approach.

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The solution which Paisley ultimately seized was to have the county dip into its own savings to bankroll a comprehensive assessment of the school system’s roofs and HVAC systems.

“I think we need a lot of information that we simply don’t have at this point,” the chairman of Alamance County’s commissioners went on to assert. “This gives the county the ability to bring in our own engineers or experts so what can evaluate what’s needed and take action on it much quicker than seven months from today.”

Paisley’s suggestion was quickly embraced by the rest of the county’s governing board, whose members were equally eager to fast-track any maintenance projects that would avoid a repeat of this summer’s mold infestation, which led to nearly $20 million in cleanup expenses as well as a two week delay in the start of the new school year.

The commissioners ultimately agreed to extend this review to the county’s own buildings on the advice of Alamance County’s manager Heidi York.

“I like the idea of trying to get us to a place where we are able to make some decisions based on data supplied by an engineer,” York told the county’s governing board, “and we hope that there’d be some economies of scale by including all buildings at one time.”

The board of commissioners proceeded to vote 5-to-0 to solicit an engineering firm that could examine all of the roofs and HVAC systems overseen at both the schools and the county’s facilities.  In the meantime, the commissioners also gave their legal counsel the green light to explore a potential end run around the state’s contractor selection process in order to get a jump start on the engineering assessment.

According to Alamance County’s attorney Rik Stevens, the county may be able to avail itself of a statutory exemption that allows local governments to skirt the competitive selection process in the event of an emergency. His judgment about the urgency of this contract was later reinforced by Ben Bass with Builder Services, which had handled most of the mold remediation at the school system’s facilities.

“Time ain’t on your side if you keep waiting,” Bass told the commissioners after he presented them with a few dozen photographs of the severe fungal infestations which his company had cleared out of the schools.

The board’s plan to assess the school system’s facilities on the county’s own nickel got no argument from Greg Hook, the school system’s chief operating officer, whose purview includes the upkeep of area schools.

ABSS chief operating officer Greg Hook

“I appreciate that plan,” he assured the commissioners after that evening’s vote, “and I believe it is the way to go.”

Hook went on to inform the commissioners that their decision to bankroll a countywide assessment had effectively stolen the thunder from a presentation that he had been prepared to give that evening on the school system’s own long-term plans for mold-proofing its buildings.

Hook nevertheless went ahead with his presentation, which Paisley had previously demanded from the school system’s superintendent Dain Butler (who, for his part, had made an early withdrawal from Monday’s 4-hour-20-minute meeting due to an unspecified illness).

In the course of his report, Hook not only addressed the school system’s roof repair needs and the shortcomings of its air circulation systems, he also touched on some issues with dehumidification, windows, and water infiltration that he deemed partially responsible for this summer’s outbreak of mold.

Hook also offered some cost estimates for the work needed to address the school system’s roofing and HVAC issues. Perhaps most significantly, he shared some quotes that he had obtained for a systemwide assessment of both the school system’s roofs and its air circulation systems. According to these back-of-the envelop figures, the schools would’ve had to spend $200,000 to $250,000 to examine all of its HVACs and another $250,000 to $300,000 to examine its roofs.

On top of these figures, Hook projected an added cost of $30 million a year to replace or refurbish the HVAC systems at eight area schools, another $15 million a year to repair or replace four school roofs, and $2.2 million per annum to hire the maintenance staff he believes will be necessary to implement the school system’s mold-proofing plans. Hook nevertheless downplayed these numbers when they raised the eyebrows of Craig Turner, who insisted they were an “order of magnitude greater” than those which the school system had shared with the commissioners this spring.

“This is really just a point of discussion,” the chief operating officer assured the distressed commissioner.

In addition to Hook’s roundup of the school system’s long-term maintenance goals, the commissioners also heard a presentation from Peter Morcombe, a local charter school developer, whose past ventures include the River Mill Academy and Clover Garden School in Alamance County. Morcombe encouraged the county’s elected leaders to outsource the responsibility for the school system’s maintenance – along with other operations such as classroom instruction, which he felt that the school system has continuously mismanaged.

Meanwhile, the commissioners didn’t exactly neglect the roofing-related request that had originally inspired their chairman’s recommended assessment.

The board of commissioners ultimately voted 3-to-2 to allow the school system to draw $301,980 from its own capital reserves to complete the design work on new roofs at B.E. Jordan Elementary, Western Middle, and Western High schools. This request passed with the support of Turner, and commissioners Pam Thompson, and Steve Carter, the vice chairman of Alamance County’s commissioners. It nevertheless failed to win over either Paisley or commissioner Bill Lashley, who saw it as an unreasonably slow way to address the school system’s maintenance needs.

“The time factor is what’s getting us,” Lashley declared. “The costs are going up faster than my taxpayers can pay the bill.” to go.”

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