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Investigative report found school board chairman improperly signed 12 contracts; she says she’d do it again

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A state legislative commission concluded that the Alamance-Burlington school board had violated multiple state laws and ABSS policies in handling $29.3 million in mold remediation contracts last year – including that school board chairman Sandy Ellington-Graves had improperly signed 12 contracts prior to board approval.  But she says her actions were justified, and she’d do it again.

A report on the findings from the investigation, requested earlier this year by senator Amy Galey, who represents Alamance County in the General Assembly, were released last Wednesday.

“Honestly, if I did it all over again, I would do it the same way.  It was an impossible situation, and I don’t regret the way it was handled.  It was a Catch-22: the work could not have started until the contracts were signed, and our goal was to get the children in school as quickly as possible.”

– ABSS board chairman Sandy Ellington-Graves

“Honestly, if I did it all over again, I would do it the same way,” Ellington-Graves said Tuesday morning in an interview with The Alamance News.  “It was an impossible situation, and I don’t regret the way it was handled.  It was a Catch-22: the work could not have started until the contracts were signed, and our goal was to get the children in school as quickly as possible.”

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The discovery of mold in 32 schools and the ABSS Central Office, just before the 2023-24 school year was scheduled to begin, prompted school officials to postpone the first day of school by two weeks, until September 11.

Following last week’s release of the findings from the investigation, ABSS interim superintendent Dr. Bill Harrison told Alamance County’s commissioners during a budget work session Friday afternoon that the purpose for the investigation had been to help ABSS with its financial struggles.

Prior to Friday’s work session, Harrison had publicly characterized the investigation as “a joke,” a waste of time, and a waste of taxpayer money that merely replowed old ground.

 

School board chairman agrees: No new news

Ellington-Graves didn’t offer a wholesale endorsement of Harrison’s characterization.  “Somebody thought it was important work,” she told the newspaper Tuesday.  “There is accountability and transparency that I am certain the public is appreciative of.”

Yet the school board’s chairman also seemed to conclude that little new or constructive information could be gleaned from the four-page report released last week and written by Clark J. Chapin, senate majority staff director for the Joint Legislative Commission on Governmental Operations (“Gov Ops”) in the General Assembly.

“It wasn’t what I expected,” Ellington-Graves told the newspaper.  “The mold challenges were very public – countless meetings – from start to finish.  I don’t feel like the information was new.  The audit findings were revealed in our meeting [on November 14, 2023]; and I think they were discussed in the commissioners’ following meeting.”

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The legislative investigation began during the tenure of then-superintendent Dr. Dain Butler, who resigned March 4.  Harrison was hired two weeks later, March 18, to serve six months as interim superintendent until a permanent successor to Butler can be hired.

On February 5, Galey announced that she had asked Gov Ops to investigate the school system’s policies and financial decisions.

The investigation had been preceded, three days earlier, by a statement ABSS issued the evening of Friday, February 2, warning that a budget deficit projected for the upcoming 2024-25 fiscal year that begins July 1 could result in a reduction in force (RIF) 54 ABSS employees, including some whose jobs were targeted for elimination by the end of February.

“Recent events and announcements have given rise to questions about the proposed RIF as well as use of capital funds in recent years,” Galey explained in her February 5, 2024 press release. “Many members of the ABSS community and the general public have reached out to me with questions about the direction ABSS is headed.  Not being an accountant or expert in school finance, I am unqualified to address their concerns, many of which I share.”

In an earlier interview with The Alamance News, Galey also pointed out that there had been sufficient funding in the budget for ABSS prior to Covid-19, before the school system received approximately $83 million in federal stimulus relief funding as a result of the pandemic.

While the report from the GovOps investigation acknowledged the emergency nature of the mold contracts, the commission also concluded that Ellington-Graves had violated the board’s own policies in signing 12 of those contracts without action by the school board.

Ellington-Graves insisted this week that her actions had been justified.  “It was an extremely challenging time, and time was of the essence,” she recalled in the interview Tuesday. “Our pre-auditing process may not have met the expectations of the state, but in an extremely challenging situation our priority was to get the schools open as soon as possible.  We didn’t just flippantly sign contracts.”

ABSS has another interpretation of statutory preaudit requirement

The GovOps commission also found several instances in which ABSS had violated multiple provisions in the state’s School Budget and Fiscal Control Act, to include failing to complete a statutorily-required preaudit certification showing that ABSS had sufficient funds on hand to cover the costs of the mold contracts prior to entering into them.

“In regards to the reference about a pre-audit, I do understand that a ‘not-to-exceed’ amount is the typical expectation for our contracts,” the school board’s chairman told the newspaper Tuesday.  “The initial contract documents from Builder Services included ROMs (rough order of magnitude), which were a specific estimate of the work proposed. I was told [the chief finance officer had] pre-audited the contracts to the amount of the ROM, basically authorizing payment for that specific ROM amount only.

“When/if the final expense was more than the anticipated ROM, a separate invoice was submitted,” Ellington-Graves explained. “Upon receipt, [the CFO] reviewed, pre-audited and processed payment when funding was in place to do so.  Honestly, any work that exceeded the initial ROMs created risk for the contractor rather than ABSS.

“Fortunately, with assistance from the county for capital funding, we were able to address a very challenging situation in a very efficient manner to get the schools open with minimal disruption,” the board chairman added.

GovOps , however, concluded that the school board’s and administration’s “noncompliance” with state law and ABSS policy in handling the mold remediation contracts not only exposes them to scrutiny by the Local Government Commission within the state treasurer’s office and by the State Board of Education – and may even expose individual board members to personal financial liability if those contract awards were to become the basis of future litigation.

Nothing in the state’s public education laws, nor separate statutes that outline the procedures for awarding public contracts, “removes the Board’s obligations to follow state statutes and board policies in the proper discharge of their duties in times of emergency,” the GovOps report stated.


Read our editorial page views on Ellington-Graves’ attitude: https://alamancenews.com/school-system-leadership-not-legislative-report-is-the-real-joke/

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