Sunday, March 3, 2024

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Graham, NC 27253
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Commissioners get snookered by school board

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Well, dear reader, you’re going to pay higher taxes.

You can thank the county commissioners who decided to set the property tax rate about $1.5 million above the “revenue neutral” level.

And the school board, who laid the groundwork for the raid on the taxpayers by a last-minute appeal of feigned urgency for more money after having squandered millions of dollars, several times over, on earlier occasions.

Reader, you recall correctly that you have read and heard county commissioners pledge, promise, and assure you for at least six months that they were all absolutely committed to a “revenue neutral” tax rate, so that the county would not reap a windfall in additional revenue, at taxpayer expense, from the revaluation of property.

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Revenue neutral, for the county, has meant a tax rate set at 42.59 cents per $100 valuation.  A “consensus” had emerged among commissioners after last week’s work session (the commissioners’ third) to implement a 43-cent tax rate.

In the end, all five commissioners went back on their assurances to strive for the revenue neutral figure, with four of them voting for a last-minute increase on Monday that raised the tax rate above last week’s consensus – that had already violated the “revenue neutral” standard by $1 million – by adding another half-million dollars to revenues expected from taxpayers.

The final decision Monday night was to set 43.2 cents as the tax rate.

We could not have been more surprised – or, quite frankly, baffled – by the willingness, even enthusiasm, of commissioners Craig Turner and Bill Lashley, in particular, to participate in this charade.

Turner and Lashley usually strike us as two of the smartest, most astute, and most financially savvy of any commissioners to serve in recent years. They usually ask good questions, have a healthy skepticism about information they are being fed by bureaucrats, and more often than not come to reasonable and sound conclusions.

But on this occasion, they were the main instigators of the illogical and unnecessary additional tax rate hike, a position that seemed totally out of character for each.

Turner first proposed the higher rate, 43.2 cents per $100 valuation, and Lashley (believe it or not) made the motion to implement that higher rate, which passed 4-1.  We give some credit to board chairman John Paisley who at least wanted to hold the line at 43 cents – though that was still $1 million higher than revenue neutral.

Also perplexing was the position of ABSS superintendent Dr. Dain Butler, who was the front man for the school system’s last-minute bluster that they just had to have more money – $867,930, to be precise.

We’ve generally been impressed with the leadership that Butler has brought to his post since he took over as superintendent last July, so it gives us no pleasure to call him on the carpet for his poor performance this week.

Recently, he claimed to have nipped and tucked central office spending by more than $7 million in order to provide funding for priorities – specifically including the very same outlays that on Monday night he said wouldn’t be funded if he didn’t get additional funds from the county.

On Monday night, he was at the podium sounding like every other school superintendent in the state and nation, who from time immemorial have piped up with the refrain, “We need more money.”

And, even more disturbing, he added the usual implied motive of every superintendent, ever: oh, this is for the children.  And, pulling on those heartstrings, he raised the ante with another, all-too-typical threat: if we don’t get the extra money, there’s no telling what programs (art and music were mentioned) I’ll have to cut in order to get by.

Long gone, and forgotten, were the previous positions, that the school system “could live with” the spending level planned by the county, which had been relayed by Butler in May and the school system’s chairman, Sandy Ellington-Graves, at the public hearing on the budget on June 5.

On June 5, Ellington-Graves told the commissioners that while the county manager’s proposed allocation was $2.9 million less than originally requested by the school system and school board, “we are confident under Dr. Butler’s leadership that we will continue to fund current operations, and with over $7 million identified in savings in just over 10 months, we are in a position to add $1.3 million in teacher supplements, $500,000 for athletic trainers, and $180,000 to increase coaching stipends.”

Ellington-Graves was sick Monday night and not at this week’s county commissioners’ meeting.

Gone, in her absence, was this old sense of confidence, inasmuch as Butler himself was insisting that he needed the extra money precisely in order to pay for the three priorities that Ellington-Graves had earlier assured the commissioners would be financed: $1.3 million in teacher supplement increases, $500,000 for athletic trainers, and $180,000 to increase coaches’ pay.

What?

Few commissioners pressed Butler on this change of heart.

Instead, they were falling over themselves with a willingness to dig deeper into the taxpayers’ pockets to pay (again) for these same items.

A sidebar about the school system’s “priorities:”  We can understand and appreciate the desire for ever-higher local supplements – ostensibly to improve competitiveness with other nearby school systems.  But there are increments available short of adding a full percentage point to salaries – i.e., half a percent, quarter, three-quarters.  There are also “timing” issues, so that a full-point hike, for instance, could be done mid-year, which would cost less money.

Most unnecessary of all, however, is the school board’s continuing obsession – especially urged by one of its members, vice chairman Ryan Bowden – with establishing athletic trainer positions, at taxpayer expense, at each high school, at a total cost of half a million dollars annually.

And yet that was a part of the “urgent” request Monday night.

In fact, Bowden was even more alarmist, and unreasonable, than Butler: “We find ourselves once again facing the burden of further cuts imposed by you [emphasis added],” he intoned to the commissioners. “I’m not here asking for a handout or more money as some might think. I’m here requesting that ABSS be properly funded in a safe and reasonable manner. You’re proposing a budget for ABSS that doesn’t even reflect the current inflation. With three leaky roofs, across our district, these cuts will be putting us in a very challenging situation.”

Leaky roofs?  Whose fault is that?  The school system’s and the school board for failing to act – if, in fact, it’s even true that those roofs are leaking in the first place.

We suspect Bowden’s and Butler’s excessive rhetoric on Monday has done great damage to what appeared to have been an improved rapport between the school system and the commissioners.

Also greatly overstated was Butler’s claim that he had only recently discovered how low the balance of the school system’s reserves had sunk.  Actually, we’ve previously reported that the audit of ABSS funds, released last fall, contained that information – so it would’ve been new to him only if he hadn’t looked at it for six to eight months (which we seriously doubt is the case).

There’s another sidestep he performed repeatedly on Monday night.  In response to commissioner complaints that the school system had diverted over $10 million in funding that was supposed to have been used for fixing HVAC systems at schools across the county into one-time employee bonuses, Butler demurred that he had not been superintendent at the time of that decision.

True enough, and Butler was diplomatic enough not to throw his school board members under the bus by pointing out that they had, in fact, made that decision.  But we’ll be glad to do so in his stead.

While Butler wasn’t on the scene or in charge (yet), the very same school board members who now claim so desperately to need this money were, in fact, the same ones who voted to squander these earlier funds. (The accompanying chart shows just how many times they have voted to divert this largesse for ABSS employees.)

[Story continues below chart outlining votes by school board to award bonuses time and again since 2020.]

Current members  chairman Ellington-Graves, Bowden, and Donna Westbrooks voted for nearly all of the nearly two dozen (!) raids to provide each of these bonuses since 2020.

And newer members Dan Ingle, Chuck Marsh (when he was present), and Dr. Charles Parker have all voted for each of the half-dozen bonuses that have passed since they came on the school board in December 2022.

The idea that because these pots of money were “federal,” rather than local, somehow absolves the school system or school board from fiduciary responsibility for such decisions is a false dichotomy.

As taxpayers well know, if school board members don’t, it all ultimately comes out of their pockets – whether through a federal pot of money or a local one.

Oh, but just by the way: At least three of the bonuses did come from county tax dollars, to the tune of over half a million dollars – $539,703, to be exact.

This is at least one contributing factor to why Butler’s “reserves” are low.

And, wouldn’t you know it: half a million dollars just so happens to be almost exactly the amount of the extra money that the commissioners were asked to pony up for the school system’s  “urgent” request this week.

No wonder they didn’t have available funds for their priorities.

They’ve already squandered what they’d been given.

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