The review of the Alamance-Burlington school system’s finances that was presented Monday night [see related story, this edition] evolved into an hour-and-40 minute discussion about another item that hadn’t been listed on the school board’s meeting agenda: hiring athletic trainers for each of the six high schools.
School board chairman Sandy Ellington-Graves recalled this week that the board had voted this spring to approve, contingent upon the availability of funding, a three-year contract for six athletic trainers with Stewart Physical Therapy, which has an office on Vaughn Road, across the road from the ABSS Central Office, as well as several other locations.
This week, the chief finance officer suggested that ABSS could use a portion of its undesignated fund balance (“rainy-day savings”) to hire high school athletic trainers, starting with the 2022-23 school year that begins Monday.
During their budget discussions this spring, school board members had penciled in $250,000 to hire six athletic trainers to work with coaches, school athletic directors, and athletes to prevent and diagnose injuries during practice sessions and games.
That spending priority was pushed further down the ledger, in mid-June, after school board members agreed to revisit their spending priorities following the school shooting that killed 19 students and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas on May 24.
In mid-June, the board agreed to reconfigure the county-funded portion of their budget for the current, 2022-23 fiscal year in order to hire more School Resource Officers.
The new ABSS superintendent, Dr. Dain Butler, who was present for that discussion but hadn’t yet assumed his duties as superintendent, told the board on June 14 that he felt confident ABSS could find money to fund hiring six high school athletic trainers.
ABSS chief academic officer Revonda Johnson reminded board members Monday night that, when they initially discussed contracting with Stewart Physical Therapy earlier this year, the cost to hire six high school athletic trainers had been estimated at $67,000 each, for a total yearly cost of at least $402,000. The cost for a three-year contract with Stewart is currently estimated at $1.2 million, Johnson said.
Johnson pointed out Monday that there’ll also be costs for things such as equipment, which she said would put the cost of the contract with Stewart at “a little over $500,000” for the first year. “There’s no way we are going to find [six athletic trainers] right now,” she added.
School board attorney Adam Mitchell of the Tharrington Smith law firm in Raleigh repeatedly cautioned the board this week against committing to a three-year contract term unless the finance officer can fulfill a statutory requirement to conduct a “pre-audit” certification showing that ABSS has sufficient funds on hand to cover the estimated $1.2 million cost of the contract.
Attorney Mitchell emphasized, “There is the pre-audit process, so your finance officer can’t go through the pre-audit without [the funding] being there. Whatever you approve has to be pre-audited; that’s all I’m saying.” He suggested that the best course of action would be to discuss the contract term with Stewart Physical Therapy “so there’s a match” between the length of the contract and the available funding.
This week, school board vice chairman Patsy Simpson and school board member Tony Rose said they support hiring athletic trainers but oppose using fund balance to pay for them (see related story).
“It’s not about the athletic trainers – we have promised them year after year,” Simpson acknowledged Monday night, noting that her son suffered a concussion several years ago, and followed the treatment protocol he was given by his family doctor.
Rose recalled that he had previously voted against a motion to approve a three-year contract with Stewart, contingent upon the availability of funding, “for this very reason.”
For her part, Simpson recalled, “We were told by the other fiscal officer this money was there – all we needed was $250,000 – and now we’re finding out we’re $3.2 million in the red.
How can you convince me, as a steward [of taxpayer money], to approve [this contract]?”
Butler assured the board Monday night, “There will be some things I can cut, contracts specifically.” He told school board members he had identified $3.2 million in expenses at the Central Office that can be eliminated.
School board member Allison Gant asked Butler whether ABSS would “dip into whatever fund balance” to fund the athletic trainers for one year.
“That would be correct,” the superintendent confirmed.
ABSS chief finance officer Kim McVey responded, “We still have over $3.4 million in fund balance, unrestricted, that could be utilized at your discretion.”
“At the same time we’re saying the fund balance is way under-funded,” Rose countered.
McVey said the school system historically hadn’t maintained two to three months’ worth of expenses in undesignated fund balance, which she acknowledged is “not a good thing.”
The school system’s auditor, Anderson Smith & Wike, has historically warned against using fund balance to pay for recurring (annual) expenses, McVey acknowledged. ABSS has historically followed that advice in developing its annual budgets.
Butler recalled that, during his previous tenure with ABSS, Alamance County’s commissioners had directed the school board, as part of their budget discussions in the spring of 2012, to develop a “spend-down” plan for the approximately $22 million that had accumulated in undesignated fund balance.
“I’ve never in 13 or 14 years been in this predicament – I’m not a happy camper,” Simpson said Monday night. “I can’t get over the fact that we didn’t even have a carryover [in fund balance]. Not only did we not have a carryover – come to find out we’re $3.2 million [over budget], and y’all want to spend some more money that we don’t have – can’t do it.”
“You had people come out and support,” school board member Ryan Bowden said, referring to several speakers who urged the board to hire high school athletic trainers earlier Monday night (see related story).
“They want to see action,” said Bowden. “I’m ready to provide action tonight.”
Rose responded, “I don’t even know what to say. I’m frozen; I support athletic trainers, yes. We’ve got to have them [but] we have obligations, by law, to know where the money is when we spend it, and we’re sitting here, deliberating the consequences of not doing that. The process fouls we have are mounting up.
“We’re talking about this like it somebody’s that left that was incompetent – I reject that,” said Rose. “This [review of local funding] is producing all of this new information; I don’t believe any of it. I need new information because something’s not right. Our [previous] CFO wasn’t incompetent; I don’t like the implication that I’ve gotten in emails that something was done.” (The current CFO Kim McVey had been the assistant finance director for ABSS; she succeeded former CFO Jeremy Teetor following his June 30 resignation.)
While the school board’s attorney, Mitchell, said that the board could amend its agenda to include a vote on the contract with Stewart Physical Therapy, he advised the board to hold off until more information can be gathered. School board members agreed by consensus to direct the administration to discuss the contract term with Stewart Physical Therapy and report back to the board as soon as possible.