Monday, February 26, 2024

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Graham, NC 27253
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Commissioners increasingly weary of school system’s ‘propaganda,’ ‘disinformation,’ publicity stunts

Commissioners put out their own report to show how much has been allocated to ABSS for roof repairs – and how little they’ve spent on the work, so far

Perhaps it should not be surprising that school officials and county commissioners have a very different interpretation on school roofing issues, as they have on other recent funding issues.

The school system used the leaks at seven schools from the heavy rains of January 9 as an illustration of “inadequate funding” from the commissioners (see separate story, this edition).

But the county last week put out its own report about the roof funding situation, pointing to county commissioner allocations of more than $15.6 million to repair roofs at nine schools – most of it, within the past two years – including for repairs at six of the seven schools mentioned in the school system’s January 9 press release.

To date, more than two-thirds, $11.3 million, of funding that the commissioners have allocated to the Alamance-Burlington school system for roof repairs remains unspent.

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In some cases, money awarded for roof work as long as four years ago remains unspent, according to the county. [See accompanying chart for a breakdown of county funding for roof repairs.]

Three of Alamance County’s five commissioners outlined why they issued their own report, simply titled “ABSS Funding Information,” in separate interviews this week with The Alamance News. [The report can be found HERE.]

The report, incidentally, comes in advance of a presentation the commissioners are scheduled to hear at their upcoming meeting on Monday morning, about the results of two separate studies they had authorized on September 18 to evaluate the status of roofing and HVAC systems in all ABSS facilities, as well as the county’s own facilities.

While the commissioners are currently scheduled to hear a report on roofs and HVAC systems for ABSS at their meeting Monday morning, the results from the evaluation of county facilities won’t be ready until later this spring, commissioner Craig Turner told the newspaper Tuesday.

 

Report intended to clear up confusion over funding for ABSS facilities

The “ABSS Funding Information” report was the result of a joint effort by the commissioners.

Turner said in an interview that he’d written the first draft of the “ABSS Funding Information” report, using numbers from the county finance director, as well as minutes and video recordings of meetings of the commissioners and school board.    All five commissioners were given an opportunity to vet the report before it was distributed and posted on the county’s website, he told the newspaper.

“I was hearing confusion in the community about what funds had been used for mold remediation,” Turner explained, and whether those expenses had affected the county-funded portion of the school system’s budget for what he termed “operations.”

The report acknowledges that the $27.1 million spent on mold remediation, testing, and dehumidification had “come from funds already designated for ABSS facilities”; that none of the school system’s “operating funds” were used to remove mold; and that all of the projects that had been previously funded by the commissioners remain fully funded.

“Those were some questions I was hearing,” Turner recalled, “but also it was really disturbing to me to see ABSS communications standing in Graham High School complaining about roof leaks and blaming the commissioners for a lack of funding when the [project] was fully funded by the commissioners in February 2022.

‘NO AMOUNT OF PROPAGANDA CAN REWRITE HISTORY’

“Part of the reason was to answer questions from the community. And it seemed to be unfair for ABSS to suggest we hadn’t funded those fixes – and no amount of propaganda from ABSS communications can rewrite history.”

– County commissioner Craig Turner

“When that funding proved to be insufficient, the commissioners approved an additional, significant allocation in October 2022,” Turner said, referring to the additional $2.3 million that the county board allocated for the roof repairs at Graham High School on October 17, 2022.

“The same facts applied to Southern High School and Haw River Elementary School,” Turner continued.  “For Graham Middle, funds to fix that were allocated before we even got on the board, in 2019.  ABSS asked for double the funding for that roof in 2022, which we approved.  [For] the other roofs, ABSS, ABSS requested only funds to do a design, which [we also approved] – having kept sufficient funds in Capital Reserves to do that very thing, which was intentional and purposeful.”

Turner was unsparing in explaining his reasons for wanting to put out a report detailing the amount of money that the commissioners have allocated to ABSS to repair roof leaks that school officials have lamented throughout much of the past decade.

“Part of the reason was to answer questions from the community,” Turner explained.  “And it seemed to be unfair for ABSS to suggest we hadn’t funded those fixes – and no amount of propaganda from ABSS communications can rewrite history.”

At the same time, Turner acknowledged that he and his fellow commissioners face some big-ticket decisions in the immediate future.

“We need to be serious,” he told the newspaper.  “There are fixes that are needed, and we need to work together in good faith to move this needle, and it is unhelpful when we’re having a narrative instead of facts; it’s just unfair.”

School officials received a copy of the “ABSS Funding Information” report last Thursday, during the latest meeting of the joint capital oversight committee.

Known informally as OSC, the committee had been established in early 2019, following passage of two bond packages, that included $150 million for new construction and building repairs for ABSS and $39.6 million for Alamance Community College.  The OSC meets monthly to discuss and track progress on the bond projects, along with routine building maintenance projects, for ABSS, ACC, and county facilities.

 

Chairman: ABSS claims to be underfunded, but hasn’t spent what’s been allocated

Commissioner chairman John Paisley, Jr. also told the newspaper that he feels as though school officials have unfairly portrayed the commissioners in the stingiest light possible.

“The county commissioners have adequately funded the school system, and they [ABSS] are choosing not to use the allotted monies for [what] they claim they need,” the commissioners’ chairman said in a separate interview Tuesday morning.  “For example, they keep going to the news media and showing leaky roofs for Graham High School and Graham Middle School.”

Like Turner, Paisley also pointed out that the commissioners had allocated $5 million in 2022 to repair the roof at Graham High School.  The commissioners also allocated a total of $1.4 million over the last four years to make roof repairs at Graham Middle School, Paisley said.

 

‘why is it taking so long for school system to get roof work completed?’

“The question becomes: why do they wait four or five years, with money in hand, to repair the roofs?”

– County commissioner chairman John Paisley, Jr.

But, at the OSC committee meeting on Thursday morning, the ABSS chief operations officer Greg Hook confirmed for the group that ABSS had not yet awarded a contract for roof repairs at Graham High or Graham Middle, Paisley recalled in the interview.

“The question becomes: why do they wait four or five years, with money in hand, to repair the roofs?” Paisley asked rhetorically.

“We recently [approved] a large sum of money for the design on two roofs,” the commissioners’ chairman recalled, referring to roof design contracts that school board members voted to award late last year to REI Engineers of Raleigh.

Actually, there were four design contracts that the county commissioners agreed to fund last fall, which the school board later awarded to REI Engineers to design roof repairs at four schools: B.E. Jordan Elementary; Eastern High; Western Middle; and Western High School.

Between September 18 and November 20, 2023 Alamance County’s commissioners approved funding requests from ABSS to pay for those four design contracts, which account for $479,860 of the overall total of $15.6 million that the county has allocated for school roofing projects over the last few years.

Meanwhile, ABSS officials had told the commissioners during those discussions that “the design would delay the repair up to six months,” Paisley recalled Tuesday morning.  “Following the design, it would take six months to a year to complete the construction to protect the buildings.  The county commissioners fund the school board’s needs, but we cannot make them use the funds appropriately, and/or timely.”

 

Countering disinformation

Commissioner Bill Lashley was also unsparing in his assessment of what he sees as a tendency, of late, by school officials to portray the commissioners in a false light.

“When we actually looked at the real numbers, backed up by our finance lady – the numbers we have allocated and invoices we have paid – you see that the numbers the school system is going on TV and telling the public aren’t anywhere close to accurate,” Lashley told the newspaper Tuesday morning.

‘LOUD BUT FULL OF LIES’

“The school system decided they wanted to have a disinformation campaign.

“We thought it was incumbent upon the county to put out the numbers that are submitted to our auditors; we have to stand behind those numbers when we submit them to the public.  This was an opportunity for the county to get the real information out; the disinformation campaign was loud but full of lies.”

– County commissioner Bill Lashley

As of December 31, 2023, all county expenditures totaled $94,749,462, Lashley said, citing figures which he said had been provided by the county’s finance department.  Of that, $32.39 million had been allocated to ABSS as of December 31, or about “a third” of all county expenditures, he said.

“The school system decided they wanted to have a disinformation campaign,” Lashley said in outlining why he felt the commissioners needed to set the record straight, from their perspective, about county funding allocated for ABSS facilities.  “We thought it was incumbent upon the county to put out the numbers that are submitted to our auditors; we have to stand behind those numbers when we submit them to the public.  This was an opportunity for the county to get the real information out; the disinformation campaign was loud but full of lies.”

“You [had] the school board chairman stand in front of the county commissioners and say the funding for the school system is only 19.7 percent [of the total county budget],” Lashley elaborated when asked to explain what he meant by “disinformation campaign.”
“I asked the school board chairman why she was using that number,” he said, referring to an earlier exchange between the commissioners and school board.  “She responded by saying she got those numbers from [the state Department of Public Instruction].  I asked the school system to show me the math; I have yet to have anyone from the school system to call or email me.”

For their part, school board members have repeatedly stated at several of their meetings that the money allocated for mold removal was “their money,” meaning that the $27.1 million allocated at the beginning of the school year to remediate mold at 33 ABSS facilities, along with other county funding for routine repairs and maintenance, had been previously allocated for school facilities.

In their report, the commissioners acknowledged that “all of the money allocated for mold remediation of ABSS facilities has come from funds already designated from ABSS facilities,” and that all projects that the commissioners had agreed to fund prior to the discovery of mold “remain fully funded.”

School board chairman Sandy Ellington-Graves had not responded to an inquiry from The Alamance News by press time Wednesday night.

The report, “ABSS Funding Information,” from the county’s website, can be found HERE

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