Thursday, February 29, 2024

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Graham, NC 27253
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School system gets part of $8.5M bailout despite friction with county commissioners

Alamance County’s commissioners rekindled an on-and-off feud with the Alamance-Burlington school system this week as they revisited a plea for a financial lifeline that the schools had originally presented to them in November.

A majority of the commissioners ultimately approved the lion’s share of this $8.5 million request during a regularly-scheduled meeting on Monday in order to give the school system the means to deal with the fallout from a system-wide mold infestation earlier this year.

Yet, this gesture on the part of the county’s governing board emerged only after a long, discombobulated discussion, filled with conflicting motions, procedural confusion, and testy exchanges between the commissioners and the school system’s superintendent. The final result was, moreover, assembled from two separate decisions – one that was intentionally stingy and a second that strived to be somewhat more generous to the schools.

The outcome of these topsy-turvy proceedings was nevertheless hailed as a breakthrough by Commissioner Craig Turner, who had pushed through the second part of the two-pronged allocation.

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“I got a lot of phone calls on both side of this issue. with some people not wanting us to give the school system any money and some people thinking that it would be the end of the world if we did nothing…and I think that our vote shows that we are being responsible in allowing ABSS to pay its bills.”

– County commissioner craig turner

“I got a lot of phone calls on both side of this issue,” Turner acknowledged during the meeting, “with some people not wanting us to give the school system any money and some people thinking that it would be the end of the world if we did nothing…and I think that our vote shows that we are being responsible in allowing ABSS to pay its bills.”

 

School of crude knocks

Among the highlights from Monday’s meeting were some particularly senseless quarrels between members of the county’s governing board and the school system’s superintendent Dain Butler. In one such exchange, Butler went tit-for-tat with county commissioner Bill Lashley over the latter’s contention that the school system has been wildly profligate in its use of the funds it receives from the county.


Exchange between commissioner Bill Lashley and ABSS superintendent Dr. Dain Butler

County commissioner Bill Lashley
ABSS Superintendent Dr. Dain Butler

LASHLEY TO SUPT.: “We’re shining a light on something that you don’t like.”

BUTLER: “No, you’re pointing fingers. This board is not hearing what we need.”

LASHLEY: “You’re not being honest.”

BUTLER: “I feel like I am being honest.”

COMMISSIONER PAM THOMPSON: “Stop! This is ridiculous. this is a p—ing match. . . I have to ask, do you really want a solution, or do you want to keep arguing?!”


“We’re shining a light on something that you don’t like,” Lashley declared at one point in this tug-of-war with the superintendent.

“No, you’re pointing fingers,” Butler shot back. “This board is not hearing what we need.”

“You’re not being honest,” Lashley retorted before Butler’s reflexive reply: “I feel like I am being honest.”

As this back-and-forth continued, it eventually drew an exasperated protest from commissioner Pam Thompson.

“Stop! This is ridiculous,” she demanded of the two men. “This s a p—ing match…I have to ask, do you really want a solution, or do you want to keep arguing?!”

 

The never-ending quarrel

The hostilities that characterized Monday’s proceedings were the latest eruption in a months-long feud between Butler and some of the commissioners, who have eyed the superintendent suspiciously ever since he allegedly blindsided them this spring with a last-minute spending request as they prepared to sign off on the county’s current annual budget.

Yet, the immediate source of the friction this week harked back to the Monday before Thanksgiving when two Butler’s subordinates approached the commissioners to seek an $8.5 million lifeline in the aftermath of this summer’s mold crisis.

That evening, the school system’s COO Greg Hook joined assistant superintendent Lowell Rogers in asking the county’s governing board to tap into the county’s own savings to cover some $5.2 million in unpaid invoices from Builder Services, their primary contractor from this summer’s mold remediation bonanza. The pair also asked the commissioners to pony up another $3.3 million to replenish the county’s annual maintenance allowance, which had been all but exhausted by the school system’s mold removal expenses.

At the height of the school system’s mold crisis, the commissioners had released some $20.5 million in funds from various accounts that they administer on behalf of the schools. At the time, the commissioners resisted using any of the county’s own funds for the school system’s mold remediation efforts, which only added to their reluctance on the Monday before Thanksgiving when Hook and Rogers showed up, hats in hand, to plead for another $8.5 million from the county’s own coffers.

In the end, the commissioners resolved to put off their final decision on this request until the first week of December due the school system’s purportedly tardy submission of the accompanying documents. In the meantime, some of the commissioners availed themselves of the opportunity to blast Rogers and Hook over maintenance practices and financial decisions that predated both of their tenures with ABSS.

Particularly keen to lambaste Butler’s proxies that evening was John Paisley, Jr., the chairman of Alamance County’s commissioners. Rogers and Hook were rather sheepish in their replies to Paisley’s verbal assaults. But Butler, who was absent from that pre-Thanksgiving meeting, was quite willing to go toe-to-toe with the county’s top-ranking official when he returned to work after the holiday.

Last Thursday, Butler joined the rest of ABSS’ leadership for a news conference that took the county’s governing board to task for allegedly for dragging its heels on the school system’s financial request.

Among the themes that they hammered home that afternoon was the allegedly paltry share of Alamance County’s budget that goes toward public education. This proportion, which they put at about 19 percent, has since been called into question by county officials, who insist the figure is closer to 32 percent when factoring in the county’s debt payments on education-related initiatives.

“It was a cheap shot. That is not the way to do business…We need to talk these things out.”

– County commissioner chairman John Paisley, Jr.

Meanwhile, Paisley has repeatedly expressed his outrage over the school system’s apparent decision to air its dispute with the board of commissioners before the court of public opinion.

“It was a cheap shot,” he declared during the meeting on Monday. “That is not the way to do business…We need to talk these things out.”

 

Fight time

After last Thursday’s news conference, the county’s leaders were amply prepared for the school system’s full-court press when the commissioners convened their latest regularly-scheduled meeting on Monday.

In anticipation of a capacity crowd that morning, Alamance County’s fire marshal John Payne carefully controlled access to the county’s meeting chambers to ensure adequate seating for the school system’s delegates and select county staff members. Most other spectators were admitted on a first-come-first-serve basis, and those denied entry were corralled on the first floor of the county’s headquarters since the courtroom that usually serves as an overflow area for the commissioners had been in use at the time.

Those fortunate enough to get seats in the county’s meeting chambers included a smattering of area residents who had signed up for the public comment period that kicks off every semimonthly meeting of the county’s governing board.

These seven speakers included former school board candidate Leonard Harrison and Ed Priola, a one-time contender for the state house who is currently seeking a seat on Alamance County’s board of commissioners. Priola and Harrison were both quite critical of the school system, although their remarks were countered by the following five speakers, who echoed many of the sentiments voiced during the school system’s news conference.

“Never have I seen such blatant disrespect displayed by both chairman Paisley and commissioner Lashley toward two of our main administrators in the Alamance Burlington school system. This level of disrespect comes very close to what in my opinion would be called bullying.”

– Sandy Lindley

 

“Yes, you can continue to talk about how previous funds have been mismanaged. But that does nothing but keep us here in space where we’re staying stagnant.”

– Tameka Harvey

The school system’s supporters included Sandy Lindley, a career educator who took issue with the treatment that Rogers and Hook had received from some of the commissioners at their pre-Thanksgiving meeting.

“Never have I seen such blatant disrespect displayed by both chairman Paisley and commissioner Lashley toward two of our main administrators in the Alamance Burlington school system,” Lindley asserted. “This level of disrespect comes very close to what in my opinion would be called bullying.”

Lindley went on to accuse the commissioners of pointing fingers at the school system’s leaders while perennially short-changing the schools of the revenue they need to operate. The county’s leaders heard much the same argument from Tameka Harvey, a parent with children at Cummings High School.

“Yes, you can continue to talk about how previous funds have been mismanaged,” Harvey acknowledged. “But that does nothing but keep us here in space where we’re staying stagnant.”

“I ask each of you what you want to be known for. If I were you, I would want to be known for putting our children first…That’s why we’re asking for nearly $9 million…and when you vote today, you will let all of us know, the taxpayers, where you stand.”

– ABSS school board chairman Sandy Ellington-Graves

The commissioners also received some unusually pointed criticism from Sandy Ellington-Graves, the normally politic chairman of the Alamance-Burlington school board.

“I ask each of you what you want to be known for,” Ellington-Graves said as she addressed the county’s governing board. “If I were you, I would want to be known for putting our children first…That’s why we’re asking for nearly $9 million…and when you vote today, you will let all of us know, the taxpayers, where you stand.”

 

Commissioners strike back

Paisley and his fellow commissioners didn’t exactly let the school system’s barrages go unanswered.

During Monday’s meeting, the chairman of Alamance County’s commissioners reiterated many of the objections that he had previously leveled against the school system’s leaders.

Among other things, Paisley slammed his counterparts with the school system for allowing their mold remediation expenses to exceed the funds that the county had initially released to cover this work. He was particularly aghast that they hadn’t set any spending limits on their contract with Builder Services.

“Who set the contracts without any caps on them?” he asked accusingly at one point during Monday’s proceedings. “How in the world do you do that?”

Paisley went on to observe that the school system’s leaders had the foresight to impose caps on a smaller mold remediation contract that they extended to locally-based Sasser Restoration when they noticed the first signs of mold at two area schools. He added that the school system did itself an enormous disservice when it neglected to place similar limits on Builder Services. (Paisley omitted to mention that his son-in-law happens to work for Sasser, although he admitted as much in a subsequent conversation with The Alamance News.) [See separate Public Asks story in this edition]

In response to Paisley’s assertions, Butler insisted that cost caps were simply not feasible with Builder Services given the scope and urgency of the company’s work.

“It was an emergency,” he said, “and there was no other contractor out there who could do what they did in the time that they did it.

Yet, Paisley wasn’t the only commissioner who found fault with the school system for its apparent inability to contain the costs of its capital projects.

Lashley raised similar concerns about the school system’s reluctance to wrap up a host of big-budget construction projects that have been bankrolled by a $150 million bond package that area voters approved in 2018.

Turner, a one-time Navy flight officer, offered an analogy from his stint in the military to explain what may be going on with these bond-funded endeavors:

“There’s a term in the national security world which is ‘mission creep’” he went on to elaborate, “and I have a concern that we have some project creep here.”

 

So many choices…

The school system’s chief operating officer actually gave the commissioners an update on these bond-subsidized projects when he and his colleagues renewed their request for a financial lifeline on Monday.

During the course of Monday’s proceedings, Hook provided the county’s governing board with an in-depth breakdown of the funds that have already been spent on these assorted initiatives – as well as the revenue that’s likely to remain when the work is complete.

Hook said that, as things currently stand, the school system is on track to have some $5,965,593.16 in unspent bond proceeds when all of the projects are finished. He nevertheless presented a raft of additional items that would bring the remaining funds down to $1,800,593.16.

The school system’s COO added that it remains for county and school system to decide if they want to proceed with these extras, which include many security-related enhancements such as surveillance cameras and doors activated by keycards.

“I think most of the board at the time was under the impression that we would have these security issues included.”

– Commissioner Steve Carter

The prospect of adding these items to the bond-subsidized projects ultimately appealed to Turner as well as Steve Carter, the vice chairman of Alamance County’s commissioners. In fact, Carter recalled that heightened security had been a priority for the commissioners when they agreed to put the aforementioned bond package on the ballot in 2018.

“I think most of the board at the time was under the impression that we would have these security issues included,” he went on to note.

Even so, the depletion of these leftover bond proceeds raised a potential dilemma for the county’s decision makers as they cast about for potential sources to fund the school system’s financial lifeline.

Alamance County’s manager Heidi York warned the commissioners that they’re legally forbidden to use bond revenue to pay for any of the school system’s bond remediation expenses. She added, however, that the commissioners can draw those funds from the school system’s capital reserves and then use leftover bond proceeds to restore the reserves.

York went to propose three competing options that the commissioners could use to pay for the school system’s financial lifeline.

Under two of these options, the county would only provide enough money to cover the school system’s unpaid mold remediation expenses. In one of these scenarios, the funds to settle these bills would come directly from the county’s own savings. In the other, they would initially derive from the school system’s capital reserves, which would then be backfilled with unspent bond proceeds.

York also proffered another alternative in which the funds to pay off the school system’s bills would be split between the county’s savings and the school system’s capital reserves. Meanwhile, the commissioners could pull another $3.3 million from the county’s savings to replenish the school system’s maintenance allowance.

 

Dissention in the ranks

In addition to York’s three proposals, Thompson floated a fourth possibility – that of obtaining the full $8.5 million which the schools had requested from $10 million in the county’s own capital reserves that the commissioners had previously set aside for a proposed expansion of the Judge J.B. Allen Jr., Court House in Graham. Although Thompson went on to make a motion to that effect, her suggestion failed to gain traction with any other commissioner.

Thompson’s failed gambit was followed by another proposal from Paisley, who suggested that the commissioners should dig into the school system’s capital reserves for the full amount needed to pay the mold remediation contractor.

“My motion gives you the money to pay the bills,” the commissioners chairman asserted, “and it doesn’t give you the additional money to play with.”

Paisley’s proposal went on to pass with the support of Carter and Lashley – notwithstanding the objections of Thompson and Turner.

After this 3-to-2 vote, the school system’s representatives sluggishly made their way out of the county’s meeting chambers after the approval of this Paisley’s proposal. But they raced back to their seats moments later when Turner made an unexpected bid to sweeten the previously approved allocation.

Turner went on to suggest that the commissioners should dip into its own savings to give the school system another $1,247,371.70 for its immediate maintenance needs. Paisley resisted this move because he said it would leave the county’s financial reserves uncomfortably close to the board’s previously articulated floor of 20 percent of the county’s annual outlays. Even so, Turner had the county manager confirm that the county’s savings could’ve potentially absorbed the full cost of the school system’s $5.2 million mold remediation balance without falling below the 20-perccent threshold.

Turner’s proposal, which was immediately seconded by Thompson, went on to win over Lashley and Carter as well. In the end, the board’s chairman was the lone holdout in the 4-to-1 decision to extend these additional funds to the schools.

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