Wednesday, July 17, 2024

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County leaders meet in joint session over ABSS funding crisis

The feuds and theatrics were in abeyance on Thursday as the Alamance-Burlington school board sat down for a long heart-to-heart with Alamance County’s commissioners and the county’s delegates to the General Assembly.

Spurred by an ever-worsening crisis in the school system’s finances, Thursday’s confab came on the heels of an announcement by superintendent Dain Butler that he would propose some steep cuts to programs and personnel in order to right the ship.

The resulting outcry from the community saw the county’s board of commissioners approve a bailout last Monday (February 5) to forestall the potential cutbacks at area schools.

Meanwhile, concerns over the school system’s monetary management compelled state senator Amy Scott Galey to call for a legislative inquiry into the whole fiscal muddle as well as the joint meeting that took place on Thursday (February 8).

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State senator Amy Scott Galey

In spite of the tensions raised by this financial crisis, that afternoon’s gathering was markedly free of the gainsaying and gripes that have recently characterized the school system’s intergovernmental relations. This refreshingly civil tone was set early on by the school board’s chairman Sandy Ellington-Graves and her county-level counterpart John Paisley, Jr., who kicked off the proceedings with some carefully-selected words of encouragement.

“This is going to be a very positive meeting,” Paisley declared in his opening remarks. “We look forward to working together with much less controversy.”

“I’ll admit I’ve fallen short of staying focused on working together,” Ellington-Graves added as she seconded Paisley’s sentiments. “But I do believe we all serve the same purpose – and that’s what’s best for Alamance County.”

These pronouncements of unity continued as each of the other elected officials in the room received a minute apiece to make their own introductory statements. Some of the meeting’s participants also used their allotted time to reflect on the gravity of the situation that confronts the school system.

“The community is deeply concerned, and it’s frustrated. I’m frustrated,” said school board member Ryan Bowden. “But I say to everyone in the room, let’s look for solutions and not the next conflict.”

“This reminds me of the scene from the Godfather where the five families get together and Vito Corleone says ‘How did things ever get this far?’” added county commissioner Craig Turner before he, too, offered an exhortation to unite in the face of adversity.


Status of ABSS finances

The question of how things had reached their current pass was ultimately addressed by deputy superintendent Lowell Rogers, who chronicled some of the major developments in the school system’s finances since Butler took over as superintendent in June of 2022.

In his account of this period, Rogers remained faithful to the superintendent’s assertions that he has stayed “laser focused on being fiscally responsible” throughout his tenure.

Rogers recalled, for example, the raft of budget cuts that Butler proposed shortly after his arrival, when the school system still had more than $2 million in its fund balance, or accumulated reserves. Butler’s deputy added that his boss trimmed another $3.2 million from the school system’s budget in the spring of 2023, but was nevertheless compelled to make an eleventh hour plea for an increase in the school system’s allocation in the county’s current annual budget.

Deputy ABSS superintendent Lowell Rogers

Rogers said that he and his colleagues were optimistic about the school system’s prospects after the board of commissioners agreed to give the school system an extra $867,930 in the budget, which took effect in July. Since then, however, the school system suffered a series of financial setbacks, which Rogers said its administrators tried to address by reconfiguring teacher assignments. He added that the school system also managed to save some $2 million by eliminating 30 vacant positions. Even so, other, intractable expenses continued to deplete the school system’s reserves until it was left with just $102,038 when its latest financial audit took place.

Rogers went on to describe some of the specific exigencies that led to the school system’s current financial predicament. He noted, for instance, that the state’s staffing allotments have proven inadequate to meet the school system’s need for positions like assistant principals, school nurses, and counselors. Rogers added that much of the school system’s federal pandemic relief had run out earlier this fiscal year, although he went on to assert that the school system’s administrators had been prepared for the loss of this revenue and had taken steps to address the monetary drain.


Unexpectedly high utility costs

Rogers nevertheless said that he and his colleagues have been caught entirely off guard by a coinciding spike in utility costs, which have shot up roughly 50 percent from what the school system anticipated in its current annual budget. Rogers attributed much of the increase in utility fees to the explosion of mold that the school system witnessed over the summer. He noted that, to prevent a repeat of this fungal infestation, some schools have been running boilers and chillers concurrently because the combination apparently creates an inhospitable setting for mold to bloom. The deputy superintendent added that this unusually high usage has bored a hole in the school system’s budget that’s expected to reach $1,928,700 by the fiscal year’s end.

Rogers said that this perfect storm of cost increases and revenue reductions has left the school system in a much different position than he and his colleagues foresaw when the financial cycle began.

This change proved just as unexpected to the Alamance-Burlington school board, as Ellington-Graves acknowledged when she addressed the superintendent’s proposed layoffs later that afternoon.

ABSS school board chairman Sandy Ellington-Graves and superintendent Dr. Dain Butler

“We felt confident in July that we could maintain those employees,” she recalled. “But as we moved through the year and we had increases in cost that we didn’t anticipate, we had to hit the pause button and ‘say where can we cut?’”

Rogers said that, in recognition of its looming financial crisis, the school system’s administrators froze non-classroom positions, reviewed the need for various positions and programs, and began to work on a “proposed reduction plan” that’s slated to be proposed to the school board on February 13.

Central to this plan is the reduction in force that the superintendent had mentioned in this public announcement on Friday, February 2. At the time he sent out this notice, Butler said he was mulling the elimination of 24 posts, including five assistant principals, six social workers, five school nurses, and six office workers. He also warned that another 30 positions could see their utilization reduced from 12 to 10 months – with corresponding decreases in salaries. In the meantime, Butler alluded to potential rollbacks in three specialty programs – namely “The Leader in Me,” “A-Plus Arts,” and “Splash,” a language immersion initiative at the elementary school level.

Butler initially predicted the school system would save some $5.9 million thanks to these selective cuts in programs and staff. But the public response to his notice has apparently forced the superintendent to rethink his plans – as has the reaction from Alamance County’s commissioners, who threw the school system a financial lifeline of $250,000 in order to temporarily defer the reductions in force.

The superintendent acknowledged the impact that that this gesture had on his proposed cuts when he addressed the reduction plan at Thursday’s joint meeting.

“My original plan was to cut $5.9 million,” he said. “But I can say that next week I will make a recommendation that will bring back all currently employed nurses and social workers that are on staff. But we’ll absorb all the vacancies.”

[Story continues below photos.]

Other photos from the joint meeting:

School board member Dan Ingle greets state representative Steve Ross.
School board member Dr. Charles Parker greets county commissioner Bill Lashley, flanked by two other school board members – Chuck Marsh at left and Seneca Rogers on right.
ABSS superintendent Dr. Dain Butler talks with county commissioner Pam Thompson.
ABSS school board member makes a point to state representative Steve Ross during the joint meeting.


Butler said that he has also decided to spare the Splash program from the proverbial axe, although he noted that he hopes to realize some modest savings by consolidating classes at higher grade levels where the program’s enrollment tends to drop off.

These changes aside, Butler said that he still plans to present $3.53 million in annualized cuts to the school board when its members convene their next meeting on February 13. This figure, which represents a year’s worth of outlays, will have a much smaller impact on the current financial cycle. Even so, Butler said that, in order to achieve the desired savings, he’ll have to eliminate some assistant principals and cut the salaries of other employees.

The superintendent’s revised plan drew a number of questions and concerns from the joint meeting’s participants.

One recurring source of confusion was the school system’s failure to act sooner to forestall the proposed layoffs. The school system’s administrators addressed this apparent oversight by pointing to the unpredictable nature of factors like the increased use of utilities.

The school system’s staffing practices also drew some scrutiny from county officials like commissioner Bill Lashley, who suggested that the school system should leverage its vacancies to preserve some of the posts on the chopping block. Rogers objected that Lashley’s proposal overlooks the restrictions on the transfer of funds from classroom positions to auxiliary posts. The assistant superintendent also poured cold water on the commissioner’s observation that positions bankrolled through federal pandemic relief were always meant to be temporary, noting that their eventual elimination is dictated by contractually enforced “exit plans” rather than the demise of their revenues.


Maintenance schedule urged

Another fertile field for inquires was the school system’s maintenance schedule, which has been a persistent sticking point between the schools and the county throughout Butler’s tenure as superintendent. A couple of the commissioners were especially keen to see the school system develop a comprehensive plan for preventive maintenance – a resource that Lashley likened to the maintenance schedule in the owner’s manual for a new car.

“It’s not only key for your organization” Lashley said of this proposed timetable. “It’s also important for your employees…so that everyone in your organization will know what’s next on the list.”

The questions which the school system’s representatives fielded on Thursday may nevertheless be a mere foretaste of what they’ll eventually undergo at the inquiry that Galey has requested in Raleigh.


Legislative investigation more like an ‘audit,’ state senator explains

The state senator ultimately offered some insights about this legislative inquest in response to a battery of questions from school board member Seneca Rogers. Galey told Rogers the investigation will fall under the purview of the General Assembly’s Joint Legislative Commission on Governmental Operations – an oversight board that’s meant to keep government agencies accountable and financially sound. Galey insisted that this so-called “gov ops” commission doesn’t conduct “investigations” in the traditional sense of the word.

“It’s an audit,” she went on to explain. “It’s an additional set of eyes from people who don’t have a dog in the fight.”

Galey said that the commission has recently been conferred with the powers to issue subpoenas and offer whistle blower protection to informants. She added that it’s hard to say how long its inquiry will take given these changes or what impact the commission’s findings would have on the operations of the local school system.

“Those are questions I can’t really answer,” she admitted. “I hope that the Gov Ops committee says everything is going well…I’m sorry if that’s vague and mushy. But this is a pretty new process, and we’re sort of a test case.”

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