Next joint meeting set for Friday
The local school system’s trouble with mold has continued to spread like a fungus this week as a dozen more schools have been found to have mold infestations – on top of the five where mold outbreaks had previously prompted the school system’s top brass to put off the first day of school by a week.
As of Wednesday afternoon, the Alamance-Burlington school system was still on track to start classes on September 5, even as scores of contracted laborers were converging on schools throughout the county to begin the rough work of scouring these sites.
The cumulative list of the affected locations had climbed to 17 schools by the time this newspaper went to press Wednesday – with toxic black mold having surfaced at two of the sites, namely Cummings High School and Broadview Middle School. In the meantime, contractors in the school system’s employ have continued to inspect other facilities with the goal of having all 37 of the system’s schools checked out by Friday.
In order to pay for these efforts, Alamance County’s board of commissioners has, so far, agreed to release $8.5 million from two pots of revenue that the county maintains on the school system’s behalf.
The commissioners initially doled out $3.5 million of these sum from a special capital reserve fund on Monday after a raucous three-hour joint meeting with their counterparts on the Alamance-Burlington school board and the county’s three member delegation to the General Assembly.
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On Wednesday, the commissioners freed up some additional funds when they resumed their tete-a-tete with the school board in absence of the state legislators. They concluded this second, three-hour chat with another allocation of $4 million from the aforementioned reserve fund along with a $1 million outlay from the school system’s share of the proceeds from North Carolina’s state lottery. The two boards also agreed to continue their ongoing discussion about the school system’s mold crisis at 3:00 p.m. on Friday.
This ongoing series of meetings between the school board and the commissioners hasn’t been without its moments of high drama – with occasional outbursts from members of both groups about their conflicting financial priorities and their commitment to the school children of Alamance County.
Yet, these clashes, including a particularly acrimonious row that closed out Wednesday’s three-hour session, have been a mere sideshow to more serious discussions about the causes of the school system’s mold infestations, the measures needed to ameliorate the problems, and the means by which the school system will pay for this work.
For the most part, the participants in these round-table debates have been quick to emphasize their shared interest in avoiding the mistakes of the past that led to the school system’s current malaise. “We need to ensure this never happens again,” declared school board member Dan Ingle at one point during Wednesday’s meeting. “You’ve got some new sheriffs in town, folks. We’ve got to fix this, and it’s going to get fixed.”
A growing problem
During Monday’s joint meeting, an oft-heard refrain among the county’s decision makers had been that, in order to help pay for the school system’s mold removal efforts, they’ll need to have solid information on the problem itself as well as firm figures on the potential cost. To this end, a large chunk of Wednesday’s follow-up session was devoted to sharing these details with the commissioners.
At the top of the three-hour confab, superintendent Dain Butler informed the commissioners that the tally of schools with confirmed mold outbreaks had balloon from 5 to 16 – with word of 17th school coming in toward the end of the meeting. Butler added that, even with this growing roster, he was still optimistic that the school system can wrap up the cleanup in time for classes to resume right after Labor Day.
“Our goal is to have all students back by Tuesday the 5th,” he added, “and if we have problems after that we’ll [close them] one at a time.”
The commissioners also received some additional insights about the ongoing search for mold infestations from Butler’s lieutenant Greg Hook, who noted that contractors had walked through 22 of the school system’s 37 schools by the time Wednesday’s meeting convened.
“Today we’re walking seven schools,” he added, “and that will leave us with 8 schools which need walking.”
Hook added that these walk-throughs would continue with visits to the school system’s bus garage and two other facilities that aren’t used for classroom instruction.
Hook said that the contractors tasked with these site visits have been conducting both air quality tests and surface inspections as they make their way through each of the school system’s facilities. He noted that the air quality samples which these contractors collect will require lab testing to identify the presence of mold, while surface mold can be pretty much confirmed on sight.
“For some of them, we have results,” he added. “Others, we see it on surfaces and know it has to be remediated…But the position that we’re taking is if there’s mold it’s going to be remediated.”
Hook said that most of the mold so far detected during these site visits is “allergenic” – meaning that it is harmless to most people but could pose problems for those with allergies or compromised immune systems. He nevertheless conceded that for more dangerous strains of toxic mold have emerged at two of the five schools where mold was previously reported.
“The only schools where we have found toxigenic [mold] are Broadview and Cummings,” he added, “and it’s going to require removing the building materials.”
In response to a call from commissioner Craig Turner for more details about the confirmed infestations, Hook took the county’s elected leaders on a narrative tour of the various sites where mold had been detected. . He recalled the school system’s initial reports of mold at Andrews and Newlin elementaries, which were followed by the discovery of more mold at Cummings High School, Broadview Middle School, and Williams High School.
Since these initial reports, Hook said that mold has turned up in some, though not all, of the buildings on the campus of Western High School as well as the A, B, C, and D wings of Western Middle School. He also noted the discovery of surface mold at Eastlawn and Haw River elementaries, in one wing of Southern Middle School, the cafeteria at Sylvan, and various surfaces at Garrett and Smith elementaries. He acknowledged that, at Eastern High, surface mold has been identified “throughout multiple buildings,” although it isn’t “pervasive” in all of them.
Hook went on to reveal that, earlier that morning, mold had been found on library shelves at E.M. Holt and in one wing of Alexander Wilson. Then, toward the end of Wednesday’s proceedings, he mentioned the late-breaking confirmation of mold at Graham High School.
The cost of cleanup
The presence of mold at so many area schools persuaded some members of the school board that they might as well engage their contracted cleanup crews to scrub down every campus they oversee.
“I think we’re at a point where we just need to do every school in our system,” opined school board member Ryan Bowden. “The air quality piece is very important, but should we wait for that piece to be done before we get resources on the ground.”
Bowden’s proposal gave rise to some speculation about the ultimate cost of the school system’s mold removal activities. A ready answer to this question was nevertheless proffered by Joe Johnson with Builder Services, which the school board had commissioned to take over the cleanup from locally-based Sasser Companies after the latter’s initial labors at Newlin and Andrews. Johnson gave the two boards “a rough order of magnitude” of $21,410,000 to cleanse every school in the system – minus the two which Sasser had handled.
Johnson’s estimate sparked an extended debate about the best way for the county to pay for all of this mold remediation.
On Monday, the board of commissioners had limited its outlay to the school system’s share of a communal capital reserve fund that also includes dollars earmarked for Alamance Community College and the county’s own needs. The county’s elected leaders nevertheless realized that a tab of more than $21.4 million would require revenue from other sources, which inspired several commissioners to propose options that wouldn’t require the county to hand over any of its own revenue.
Steve Carter, the vice chairman of Alamance County’s commissioners, pointed to $19.2 million in potential bond revenue that the county had the ability to issue on top of a $150 million bond package that the local electorate approved in 2018 for a number of projects that the school system had on its to-do list. Carter conceded that this so-called bond premium would have to be utilized in a round about in order to offset the cost of mold remediation.
“The bond premium is required to be used for capital expenses,” he acknowledged. “It can’t be used for operational expenses, which mold remediation is.”
Carter proposed that the proceeds from these additional bond issues could be applied to capital projects that currently appear in the school system’s budget. The cash currently set aside for those projects could then be diverted to mold removal.
Susan Evans said that there are current roofing projects and other previously-budgeted capital ventures that could be funded through $19,315,000 in “authorized but unissued” bond proceeds. Evans added that she’d like to confer with the county’s bond attorney before she signs off on the use of bond funds for any particular project.
Another option that received quite a bit of consideration on Wednesday was the potential reallocation of federal pandemic funds that the school system currently has earmarked for HVAC upgrades. This possibility of tapping these funds, which are dubbed ESSER in the school system’s parlance, had also been the subject of much discussion during Monday’s three-hour round-table.
In support of the proposed use of these funds, Alamance County’s Rik Stevens said that he has recently consulted state officials about the applicability of these federal dollars to non-pandemic related projects like mold remediation.
“They concluded that the use of ESSER funds for this purpose is proper,” he added. “I think there is a solid nexus to use the ESSER funds for HVACs or potentially for the mold remediation.”
In the meantime, Adam Mitchell, the school system’s attorney, came in over speaker phone to warn the school board against this suggestion. He argued that, if federal authorities object to this use of pandemic relief funds after the fact, the schools will have to use local dollars to reimburse the federal subsidies.
“That seems like a real big risk,” he added, “and we can’t know with certainty now.”
“It’s rolling the dice,” agreed school board member Charles Parker. “It’s a soft call whether those funds would be allowed.”
In the end, the school system’s top brass declined to siphon off any revenue from their cache of federal pandemic relief. But they were nevertheless eager to get something from the commissioners so that Builder Services could continue its mold remediation efforts in Alamance County.
Dain Butler goaded the two boards to reach an accommodation that would allow the school system to keep this contractor employed for at least as long as it takes the commissioners to free up other sources of revenue.
“We need to do something today,” he added, “and we do not have funding to complete this process…The only way we can get all the students back on September 5 is to get all the schools with mold remediated and we have Builder Services on the ground right now.”
Butler added that the school system is prepared to release a virtual learning plan for its high schools if it’s unable to get the funding it needs.
Ryan Bowden also pushed for a more immediate financial commitment from the commissioners given the current availability of Builder Services.
“They’re in town and they’re resources are on the ground,” he said. “Give us the green light to get every building clean like it needs to be.”
“Time is of the essence,” Pam Thompson agreed. “This is like a national disaster for Alamance County…Not knowing will wipe the public out…We all know how General Custer felt.”
“The goal needs to be getting our children back in school,” Craig Turner added.
Turner went on to propose that the commissioners address the fees for Builder Services and solicit other contractors “to bid on additional work.” In the meantime, he urged the board of commissioners to free up $5 million in funds that the county holds for the school system so that the current contractor can continue its work.
Turner proposed that the commissioners release $4 million of this outlay from the school system’s capital reserves and another $1 million from its share of the state lottery’s proceeds. He went on to suggest that $2,765,000 of this $5 million be used for mold remediation at Western High, Western Middle, Haw River Elementary, Eastlawn, Southern Middle, and Sylvan. He suggested putting the remaining $2,235,000 toward work at Garrett, South Mebane, Eastern High, E.M. Holt, and Alexander Wilson.
Turner’s motion was interrupted by commissioner Steve Carter, who kept dogging his colleagues about his plan to issue more bond revenue to free up other funds for mold remediation. But after the commissioners had approved Turner’s motion, the two boards were still unable to part as Ryan Bowden made a last-ditch attempt to prolong the proceedings in order to get a “full” financial commitment from the commissioners.
“I just want to go up on record and say that we are making a big mistake by not rolling up our sleeves and getting this done today,” Bowden went on to assert when his attempt was shot down. “What do you say to those parents when you’re going to push this off?”
Bowden’s remark would go on to spark a general melee as commissioner Bill Lashley broke in to protest to the school board member’s inference that the commissioners aren’t doing right by the county’s school children. Lashley went on to denounce a previous vote of the school board in which Bowden and “three amigos” voted to redirect federal pandemic relief funds from HVAC upgrades to staff bonuses – a move that Lashley insisted had squandered money that could now be used for mold remediation.
Lashley’s tirade eventually drew some return fire from Chuck Marsh before Sandy Ellington Graves finally broke in to bring her bickering colleagues to heel.
“We have plenty of time to point fingers,” the school board’s chairman insisted after her own impassioned defense of the contentious staff bonuses. “That’s not what this thing is about. We have got to think about our children.”