Friday, April 19, 2024

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Commissioners vote another $3.9M for mold cleanup in ABSS schools on Tuesday; total now over $20M

The cost of mold removal has continued to grow for the Alamance-Burlington school system, as more and more of the school system’s facilities have turned out to be in the grip of this problem.

As of Tuesday afternoon, the presence of mold had been confirmed on 32 of the school system’s 38 campuses – with toxic strains having been identified in 16 of those locations. Due to the severity of these fungal infestations, the school system’s top brass has hired a multi-state contractor to redress the contamination, while twice postponing the first day of classes to ensure students aren’t meeting in mold-ridden buildings.

The belated start of the school year, which is presently slated to begin on September 11, hasn’t exactly endeared the school system’s administrators to the frazzled parents of Alamance County’s school children. Even so, Greg Hook, one of the school system’s assistant superintendents, stood by the administration’s decision when he briefed the county’s board of commissioners this week on the ongoing mold crisis.

“Over the past six weeks, we’ve been working to assess the situation, hire work crews, and find both short term solutions and long-term fixes,” he explained when the commissioners held their latest regularly scheduled meeting on Tuesday.  “This was a difficult decision for us. But in the long run, we, the commissioners, and the school board are doing the right thing by our taxpayers.”

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The school system currently expects to spend at least $18.5 million on the work needed to clear up these outbreaks of mold. This sum amounts to an increase of nearly $2 million from a previous estimate that the school system’s higher ups had presented to the county’s board of commissioners on Friday.

In order to provide the schools with the funds to pay for this cleanup, the board of commissioners has signed off on a succession of multimillion-dollar allocations over the past week and a half. The latest of these outlays occurred Tuesday when the commissioners shifted $3.9 million from a roof replacement project at Graham High School to cover the newest batch of remediation expenses. The board agreed to siphon these funds at the suggestion of commissioner Craig Turner, who also convinced his colleagues to “backfill” the roofing project with unspent proceeds from a bond package that area voters had approved in 2018.

County commissioner Craig Turner

Turner’s proposal, which was unanimously adopted by his fellow commissioners, has brought the school system’s mold remediation kitty to a sum total of about $20.4 million. These funds include some $1.2 million that the school system allocated from its own maintenance funds when high levels of mold were first detected at Andrews and Newlin elementary schools. It also encompasses another $15.4 million that the commissioners released largely from the school system’s own capital reserves during the course of three joint meetings last week with the members of the Alamance-Burlington school board.

The latest allotment of $3.9 million not only covers the balance of the school system’s current mold remediation work but also includes a cushion of nearly $2 million to foot any other costs that may emerge in the coming week. These added expenses are more or less a foregone conclusion, according to Ben Bass of Builders Services of North Carolina, which has served as the school system’s primary contractor for most of the ongoing mold remediation.

Bass made no bones about the severity of the school system’s mold infestation when he was called up to describe his company’s work during Tuesday’s briefing to the commissioners.

Ben Bass, head of cleanup company doing mold remediation in Alamance County’s schools

“It feels like the Alamance County school system got hit by a hurricane…

“The immediate needs right now is the HVACs…and it’s going to take months to address it.

“I can tell you that if it is not corrected, you’re going to be back in the same boat.”

. – Ben Bass, Builders Services of North Carolina

“It feels like the Alamance County school system got hit by a hurricane,” he declared. “I have almost 600 people here just cleaning ducts and remediating.”

Bass said that the 2,000 workers he has assigned to Alamance County have had a hard enough time dealing with the allergenic mold that pervades many of the school system’s facilities. This work has only been complicated by the discovery of toxic mold at numerous locations – which currently include Broadview Middle School, Cummings High School, Woodlawn Middle School, Graham High School, Haw River Elementary, Eastern High School, Eastlawn Elementary, Ray Street Academy, Western High School, Grove Park Elementary, Pleasant Grove Elementary, North Graham Elementary, E.M. Holt Elementary, B. Everett Jordan Elementary, Sylvan Elementary, and Southern High School.

In addition to the removal of the actual mold, each school where toxic mold has been identified will also need to have its air circulation systems thoroughly cleaned. Bass added that his company’s workers have also been instructed to remove any ceiling tile with water damage from each of these schools, along with many blackboards and dry erase boards, whose particle board frameworks have been eaten away by aggressive mold.

Bass told the commissioners that his company’s labors have been complicated by the school system’s third-party mold inspectors, who have begun to give much more precise instructions for mold remediation than they had in the beginning.  To make matters worse, mold has turned up in new areas of schools where the contamination initially seemed to be somewhat contained. At Highland Elementary, one of the school system’s newest facilities, the initial discovery of mold in the front office has since been compounded by much more extensive infestation – adding $520,000 to the contractor’s initial cost estimate of $15,000 for this particular campus.

Bass nevertheless stressed that the cost increases driven by these immediate needs will be nothing compared to the long-term improvements that he believes will be needed once classes resume. Among other things, contractors will need to address much of the water infiltration that Bass insists has caused toxic mold to gradually build up in particular schools.

“The immediate needs right now is the HVACs…and it’s going to take months to address it,” he added.

“I can tell you that if it is not corrected, you’re going to be back in the same boat.”

Bass went on to suggest that the emergence of toxic mold at nearly half of the school system’s facilities can be attributed to perennial roof leaks and other long-standing maintenance problems. The school system’s administrators were quick to acknowledge these, and other, historical failures.  Dain Butler, the school system’s superintendent, even took issue with a cost-saving measure by a previous school board which had allowed schools to cut off their HVACs at night, on weekends, and for extended periods during the summer – presumably exacerbating the conditions that enabled the mold to explode.

“That was a bad decision,” he assured the commissioners.

Yet, Butler also encouraged the county’s elected leaders not to dwell too much on the mistakes of the past.

ABSS superintendent Dr. Dain Butler

“I think what we need to focus on going forward is a long-term plan. That needs to be our laser focus – not looking backwards.”

– ABSS superintendent Dr. Dain Butler

“I think what we need to focus on going forward is a long-term plan,” he added. “That needs to be our laser focus – not looking backwards.”

The commissioners, for their part, were somewhat divided in their response to the superintendent’s entreaties.

The prospect of many costly improvements didn’t seem to faze commissioner Pam Thompson, who herself served on the Alamance-Burlington’s school board prior to her elevation to the county’s governing board.

County commissioner Pam Thompson

     “We need to fix what we need to fix so it doesn’t happen again. This is just one of those times when you have to suck it up and do the right thing.”

– County commissioner Pam Thompson

“We need to fix what we need to fix so it doesn’t happen again,” Thompson implored her fellow commissioners. “This is just one of those times when you have to suck it up and do the right thing.”

But the county’s financial obligations to the school system didn’t appear quite so straightforward to John Paisley, Jr., the chairman of Alamance County’s commissioners.

County commissioner chairman John Paisley, Jr.

“We just keep throwing more and more taxpayer dollars [at this problem]. I’m just really concerned that the school system is entering into contracts with no caps and no eventual end.”

– County commissioner chairman John Paisley, Jr.

“We just keep throwing more and more taxpayer dollars [at this problem],” he said. “I’m just really concerned that the school system is entering into contracts with no caps and no eventual end.”

County commissioner Steve Carter

“We get criticism from both sides – we get people saying get the schools open and make them safe, and we get people saying don’t spend any more money.”

– County commissioner Steve Carter

Meanwhile, Steve Carter, the vice chairman of Alamance County’s commissioners, expressed his frustration over the frequent, often conflicting, public feedback that he and his fellow commissioners have received about the school system’s crisis.

“We get criticism from both sides – we get people saying get the schools open and make them safe, and we get people saying don’t spend any more money.”

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