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School board members vote 7-0 to approve contract for high school athletic trainers but one says ABSS can’t afford it

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A seemingly mundane contract – to hire athletic trainers at each of the six Alamance-Burlington high schools through a local physical therapy clinic – that was placed on the school board’s latest meeting agenda took a detour when board member Tony Rose suggested that the $51.3 million budget request that ABSS has submitted to the county won’t cover the estimated $400,000 annual cost for the contract, along with the other funding priorities that were identified earlier this spring.

More than two years since ABSS officials first floated the idea of hiring high school athletic trainers, in October 2019, school board members voted 7-0 this week to approve a contract to hire six high school athletic trainers through Stewart Physical Therapy, which has two offices in Burlington, an office in Mebane, and five others in the Triangle and Triad regions.

Most school board members have said they support hiring high school athletic trainers to prevent and treat injuries such as concussions at sports practices and games, as well as to educate students and staff on injury prevention measures.

The cost for the contract with Stewart Physical Therapy is $5,584.00 per athletic trainer, per month (or $33,504 per month to have one athletic trainer at each of the six existing ABSS high schools) and an annual cost of just over $400,000, based on a copy of the three-year contract that was provided to school board members this week.

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“By having athletic trainers, we can do that education piece so we can be proactive instead of always being reactive,” ABSS chief secondary officer Revonda Johnson explained Monday night.  As an example, one part of their duties would be to educate athletes, students, and staff about such things as how to identify the signs of a concussion, she said.  They would also be responsible for staying up-to-date on the latest medical treatments and injury prevention strategies, as well as North Carolina High School Athletic Association guidelines and related regulations, Johnson said.  “Athletic trainers are an essential requirement for having a strong athletic program,” she said Monday night.

Under the terms of the contract, the six athletic trainers would be employees of Stewart Physical Therapy (rather than ABSS), Johnson said.  The trainers also would provide: services for the prevention, recognition, assessment, treatment, and rehabilitation of injuries during athletic practices; on-site coverage at home/away games for varsity teams and other athletic events; and strength training and conditioning for athletes, based on a copy of the contract that was furnished to school board members Monday night.

‘Where will this money come from?’

“If we approve this, where will this money come from?” Rose asked.  “I’m supportive of the program…It looks to me that something would be eliminated [based on] our past discussions of the budget. I’m concerned about how it’s going to be paid for. We need to have a conversation to discuss how to handle that we’re getting less money from the commissioners than we asked for.  This seems to be something that we wanted but might not be funded, at least in that request.”

“Are we putting the cart before the horse?” school board member Wayne Beam asked Monday night.

Alamance County’s commissioners haven’t yet publicly discussed the $51.3 million county budget request for ABSS, which represents a $4.78 million (or 9.1 percent) increase above what the county allocated to the school system for the current fiscal year that ends June 30.  The commissioners customarily evaluate the county budget request that ABSS submits each spring but don’t direct the funds to be spent on specific line items.

ABSS chief business officer Jeremy Teetor reminded the board this week that he had set previously set aside $150,000 for hiring athletic trainers, which school board members have repeatedly identified as a top funding priority in discussing their county budget requests since the spring of 2020.  The board also agreed earlier this spring to earmark $250,000 for hiring athletic trainers in the $51.3 million county budget request that ABSS submitted to the county last month.

School board member Allison Gant, who participated in the discussion Monday night by phone, asked whether there might be grants that ABSS could apply for to offset the costs for the athletic trainers.  “This is so critical to our students, and I absolutely agree we have got to find a way to make this happen,” she said.  “When we go look at our final [budget] number, we do have some hard decisions to make.”

Teetor acknowledged that some grants are available for athletic trainers, but those are designated for continuing education, “not to actually administer a program.”

“Just to echo to our county commissioners, we are so appreciative of everything that you guys do for us and we would love if you were to reconsider that from a student safety [perspective], but we are so appreciative,” school board chairman Sandy Ellington-Graves said, directing her comments to the two county commissioners, Bill Lashley and Craig Turner, who were seated in the audience during the meeting Monday night and serve as their board’s liaisons to ABSS.

Though the two commissioner liaisons don’t typically join in discussions at the school board’s monthly “business” meeting, Lashley asked the chairman Monday night if he could address the funding issue.

“Allison Gant got it right when she said that you folks have some hard decisions to make,” Lashley told the school board.   “We gave you $8½ million in capital funding that you asked for to fix the top 10 projects; on top of that this year we’re giving you $3.3 million for the capital projects, and we gave you $3½ million over what you asked for last year.  The school board’s got some hard choices to make; if these athletic trainers are what you need, you’re going to have to make some hard choices.  Chances are there’s not going to be any extra money coming down the pike.”

Commissioner Craig Turner, who also serves as another liaison to the school board, also attended Monday night’s school board meeting but didn’t speak on the availability of extra funding from the county, on top of the $51.3 million budget request from ABSS.

Finance officer: Board will need to decide how to use $150K set aside for athletic trainers

“We’d have to have some additional conversation about what do we do with the $150,000 we’ve been holding,” Teetor said, referring to fund balance (“rainy-day savings” carried over from previous budgets) that has been set aside to hire athletic trainers.  “We may not see this whole program outlined here, so we’d just have to have some difficult conversations about how much can we feasibly do with what we’ve been holding.  Two, we’ve been working on it for months to find a partner and negotiate a contract.”

ABSS interim superintendent Dr. James (“Jim”) Merrill suggested Monday night, “Maybe there can be a contingent positive vote that sends the right kind of signal.”

“We have got to do this; we absolutely have got to do this,” school board member Donna Westbrooks said, meaning that she thinks it’s imperative to hire the athletic trainers.

School board members subsequently voted 7-0 to approve the contract with Stewart Physical Therapy, contingent upon the availability of funding to cover the costs.  The contract is tentatively scheduled to run from July 1, 2022 to June 30, 2025.

The six athletic trainers would likely be employed with ABSS on a 12-month basis, Johnson confirmed for The Alamance News during a break Monday night.

School board members had voted 5-2 earlier this year to submit their $51.3 million county budget request to the commissioners.  Voting in favor were: Rose; and school board members Wayne Beam, Ryan Bowden, Allison Gant, and Donna Westbrooks.  School board chairman Sandy Ellington-Graves and vice chairman Patsy Simpson, voted against, saying at the time that they opposed a plan to scale back an increase in the county-funded supplement for teachers, from ½ of 1 percent to ¼ of 1 percent.

Absent any future adjustments by the school board, if the county commissioners were to allocate the entire $51.3 million that ABSS is requesting, the teacher supplement would range from 10¼ to 12¼ percent, which is based on consecutive years of employment with ABSS and paid on top of the state-funded portion of their salaries.

The commissioners are currently scheduled to hold a public hearing on the county budget on June 6; they typically vote around mid-June of each year to adopt a county budget for the next fiscal year.

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