County allows schools to tap reserves to cover ballooning construction costs

Alamance County’s commissioners have agreed to let the local school system draw just over $8 million from its own capital reserves to cover cost increases in maintenance projects that range from roadwork to roof replacements.

The commissioners ultimately gave a unanimous nod to this withdrawal on Monday after Todd Thorpe, one of the school system’s assistant superintendents, presented them with a financial breakdown of the school system’s ongoing maintenance projects.

Thorpe told the commissioners that a combination of high labor costs and inflated prices for construction materials have forced the school system to revise its original budgets for eight of these projects. He attributed roughly $5 million of the cumulative increase to roof work at Graham High, Graham Middle, Haw River Elementary, and Southern High schools.

Thorpe also highlighted increases in several road projects, including nearly $1.7 million in extra expenses for traffic improvements on the grounds of Altamahaw-Ossipee, E.M. Holt, and Alexander Wilson elementary schools. Thorpe said that these projects may be eligible for partial reimbursements from the state’s transportation department, although he added that the state currently has a $750,000 cap on roadwork that doesn’t involve actual state highways.

In order to cover these increases, the commissioners voted 5-to-0 to let Thorpe and his colleagues tap into a $12.7 million reserve that the schools have accumulated from various sources, including sales tax receipts that are earmarked specifically for the school system’s capital needs.

Even so, Thorpe’s plans for these capital reserves proved somewhat problematic for commissioner Craig Turner, who insisted that the school system should have, instead, reallocated the savings it has realized from a $150 million bond package that area voters approved in 2018.

During his presentation to the commissioners, Thorpe spent nearly an hour reviewing the status of these bond-subsidized projects – many of which, he contended, are coming in below budget and ahead of schedule. The assistant superintendent added that, at the moment, these projects are on track to generate a combined savings “right at” $8 million.

In response to a question from Turner, Thorpe acknowledged that the terms of the school system’s bonds allow it to allocate any leftover funds to projects that weren’t part of the original bond package. He admitted, however, that he and his colleagues have primarily been looking for ways to spend their excess revenue at the same schools where the bond-funded construction has taken place.

“What I’ve told my team,” he informed the commissioners, “is that where this money has been assigned to certain schools…to take that money and put it right back into those sites.”
Thorpe’s management of these projects ultimately got high marks from commissioner Pam Thompson, who had previously been a member of the Alamance-Burlington school board.

“You have a lot to be proud of,” Thompson reassured Thorpe after his presentation, “and I think it’s great that everybody sees where the money is going.”

Turner, however, was a little more skeptical.

Although he eventually joined his fellow commissioners in permitting the school system to draw on its reserves, Turner made it quite clear that he would have preferred to see it use leftover bond proceeds to plug the holes in its other maintenance projects.

“I disagree with your approach to the allocation of bond savings,” he went on to admonish Thorpe. “We’ve a top ten list that identifies the top priorities for what capital spending should be for our schools, and we oughta focus our savings on those.”