Most of Alamance County’s commissioners told The Alamance News this week that they were stunned – and several, deeply concerned – to learn that Alamance-Burlington superintendent Dr. Dain Butler had secretly tape-recorded conversations with them, in which he later said they had pledged to provide some sort of a “match” for an increase in the teacher supplement that ABSS teachers receive on top of their state-funded salaries.
Butler had told the commissioners at their meeting on June 19 – when they voted to approve their county budget for the 2023-24 fiscal year – that he’d recorded conversations during one-on-one meetings with the commissioners.
The Alamance News filed a public records request with Butler on June 22, seeking to “inspect or obtain copies of any and all audio and/or video recordings made by Butler, his staff, and school board members of discussions with Alamance County’s commissioners about county funding for ABSS.”
Within minutes of receiving the newspaper’s records request on June 22, Butler informed Alamance News publisher Tom Boney, Jr., “Regrettably, I no longer have those recordings.”
Butler, who began his career in education as a teacher at Broadview Middle School before moving through the ranks to the ABSS central office and later becoming superintendent of the Roanoke Rapids Graded School District, confirmed for The Alamance News that he’d secretly recorded those meetings with the commissioners last summer but deleted them because he felt like the relationship between ABSS and the county was on solid ground.
“When I returned to ABSS, I went on a listening and learning tour, and that included meeting with commissioners one-on-one,” Butler said in an interview with the newspaper Monday. “I am aware that there has been a poor relationship with the commissioners [in the past] and have proceeded with caution as a result…I was surprised and very pleased the conversations went very well, and their support for ABSS seemed very obvious at that time, so I deleted the recordings; I felt there was no need to keep the recordings.”
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Asked which of the commissioners he felt had committed to providing some type of “match” for a teacher supplement increase, Butler told the newspaper, “There was no resistance from any [commissioner] to consider improving teacher supplements in ABSS.”
“The collaboration level was very [satisfactory] to me, so I did not see a need to keep those recordings,” Butler said in the interview, noting that he had previously “made significant cuts from Central [Office] and programs that were not very beneficial.”
Butler recalled this week that, shortly after taking over as superintendent, he had preemptively trimmed expenses – which he described as “significant cuts to central services and programs that were not very beneficial” – as a show of good faith to the commissioners.
When it came time for the commissioners to vote on a county budget, “My disappointment was I didn’t get the expected support on matching the teaching supplement,” Butler said, apparently alluding to his remarks at the commissioners’ meeting on June 19. “With that said,” he added, “I am totally aware the commissioners are responsible for many more entities than ABSS.”
Butler said this week that he’d held onto the recordings – how long is unclear – to refresh his memory and check his own understanding about the commissioners’ positions on the various topics they’d discussed at his office last summer, he insisted in the interview Monday.
The superintendent acknowledges that he hadn’t informed any of the five county commissioners beforehand that he was recording their conversations. “North Carolina is a one party consent state,” Butler said, adding, “Permission is not required.”
Asked Wednesday who else had he recorded, and why, Butler said, “Recordings are used at my best discretion.”
Press attorney: superintendent appears to have destroyed public records
Beth Soja, an attorney for the North Carolina Press Association, agreed that Butler hadn’t broken any state laws in making the recordings – and not informing the commissioners that he was doing so – but probably did violate the N.C. Public Records Law when he destroyed them.
“The recordings would be public records,” Soja confirmed for The Alamance News. “Destroying the recordings is probably a violation of the requirement to retain public records for a set amount of time,” she said.
Mike Tadych, another attorney for the state press association, opined that, depending on how the recordings were made, “There may be ways to recover what was lost.”
The superintendent recalled that he had used a “black box” type of digital recording device to memorialize his discussions with the individual commissioners at his office last summer.
The one-party consent rule notwithstanding, four of the five county commissioners (all except Pam Thompson) said they felt Butler should’ve disclosed that he was recording their discussions as a matter of professional courtesy.
Each of the five commissioners confirmed this week that they’d met individually with Butler at his office in the summer of 2022 – though they described those meetings as a “getting-to-know-you” type of event.
All five commissioners told the newspaper this week that they’d expressed their support for ABSS during their meetings with Butler last summer. Only one commissioner, Craig Turner, said he and Butler had discussed county funding for ABSS during their private meeting in the summer of 2022.
But none of the five county commissioners said they’d pledged to provide any type of a “match” for a teacher supplement increase as Butler had described at their June 19 meeting, though Turner’s account of his conversation with the new superintendent comes closest to the scenario that Butler described.
“My recollection is we did discuss a number of things – school facilities, the top 10 [unfunded capital projects] list, and how important it was to me to move projects on that list and pick up the pace of projects they were working on,” Turner said in an interview Monday. “We did discuss the teacher supplement,” which he noted was one of the issues he ran on in the commissioners’ race in last year’s general election.
“I wanted ABSS to at least be in the Top 10 because some of our neighboring counties had increased their teacher supplement. . . [With regard to secret recordings] I generally think it’s better to be up front when you’re recording somebody.” – County commissioner Craig Turner
Turner said he’s long agreed with school board members about the need to get the teacher supplement for ABSS back into the Top 10, among the 115 North Carolina public school systems, as it had been prior to 2020.
“I wanted ABSS to at least be in the Top 10 because some of our neighboring counties had increased their teacher supplement,” Turner explained.
Turner recalled this week, that during their initial private meeting last summer, the superintendent had asked if he could come up with about $750,000 from his budget, would the commissioners provide $750,000 in matching funds, which Turner estimated would provide an increase of “a little over 1 percent.”
Turner told the newspaper that he was unaware that Butler had recorded the conversation but he also didn’t seem inclined to dwell on that omission. “I generally think it’s better to be up front when you’re recording somebody,” the commissioner acknowledged.
“To me,” Turner added, “it all boils down to the choice that was before us. I’m focused on the right policy for the county and the schools and getting facilities where they need to be…I think we need to move forward.”
Nonetheless, Turner’s version of the discussion around providing some sort of a county match for the teacher supplement doesn’t square with the superintendent’s recollection of their discussion.
In the interview Monday, Butler said that, during his private meetings with each of the commissioners last summer, “There was a discussion to potentially provide a 1 percent match for a teaching supplement increase if I was able to find 1 percent internally,” which he said would provide a total increase of 2 percent in the teacher supplement.
Butler did not offer any elaboration on the fact that the concept of a 2 percent increase in the teacher supplement wasn’t broached during any of the school board’s discussions about the county budget request for ABSS earlier this year.
Prior to the 2023-24 fiscal year that began July 1, the county-funded supplement for teachers had ranged between 10.5 percent and 12.5 percent of their state-funded salaries, depending upon years of consecutive experience with ABSS.
Thompson unconcerned about secret recordings
Four of the five commissioners told the newspaper this week that they were surprised to learn – after the fact – that Butler had recorded their discussions without their knowledge.
Commissioner Pam Thompson, a former two-term school board member who describes herself as a longtime friend of Butler, didn’t seem to be concerned at all to learn that Butler had secretly recorded his one-on-one meeting with her – though she does take exception to there being any private meetings between elected officials.
“I don’t do these types of meetings,” Thompson said in an interview with The Alamance News. “The closet kind of leadership, I don’t do that.”
At the same time, Thompson said, “[Butler’s] my friend, and I support the school system. The only time I met with [the superintendent] was at Central Office after he got sworn in. We discussed how we’ve been and [how I couldn’t] believe we’re sitting here and you’re the superintendent. It was old times and how he had come through cancer. I trust him totally; he is definitely a man of integrity. He just wants the best for the school system, and he will fight for it.”
Thompson said that, while her private discussion with Butler during the summer of 2022 hadn’t touched on county funding, she’s committed to offering a competitive supplement for teachers. “I want to have a strong supplement because we need to recruit strong teachers,” said the former school board member and current commissioner. “Same goes for industries,” Thompson added, explaining that if you want to hire the best and brightest candidates, you need to be able to pay competitive wages and benefits.
“I think everybody was tired [at the June 19 commissioners’ meeting]. I was not there [at any meeting where Butler discussed a ‘match’ in the teacher supplement] but the fact that there was a [private] meeting may be the problem.”
– County commissioner Pam Thompson
Thompson also didn’t take umbrage at Butler’s remarks to the commissioners on June 19. “I think everybody got a little tense and a little defensive,” Thompson said of the barbed comments that Paisley, Butler, and commissioner Bill Lashley had exchanged that night.
“I think everybody was tired,” Thompson observed, adding, “I was not there [at any meeting where Butler discussed a ‘match’ in the teacher supplement] but the fact that there was a [private] meeting may be the problem.”
“I’ve got some recordings, too, about matching my teaching supplements. You want me to play those? Each one of you sat in my office and said that to me. If I could come up with 1 percent, would you match it?” – ABSS Superintendent Dr. Dain Butler at June 19 county commissioners’ meeting
During a brief but tense exchange on June 19, commissioner chairman John Paisley recalled that Butler had been recorded telling the commissioners just a month earlier, at the commissioners’ meeting on May 15, “We’re happy with our proposed budget,” as the chairman described it, referring to the funding level that York had recommended allocating to ABSS for the 2023-24 fiscal year.
Butler shot back, “I’ve got some recordings, too, about matching my teaching supplements. You want me to play those? Each one of you sat in my office and said that to me. If I could come up with 1 percent, would you match it?”
School board members had penciled in $1.99 million in the county budget request for three new “funding priorities” that included: a 1 percent increase in the teacher supplement; the salaries and benefits for seven new high school athletic trainers; and a bump in the athletic coaching stipend.
After Alamance County manager Heidi York unveiled her county budget recommendation in mid-May, Butler and the school board set about looking ways to close the $2.8 million funding gap between the total of $54.1 million in county funding that ABSS had requested for 2023-24 and the $51.3 million that county manager Heidi York had recommended allocating to the school system.
On May 22, Butler and the board agreed to eliminate $3.2 million from existing expenses for ABSS in order to close the anticipated gap in county funding for the new fiscal year.
Turner, who along with Lashley serves as a commissioner liaison to the school board, confirmed for the newspaper that he’d heard no discussion about the concept of a “match” in the teacher supplement at any of the school board meetings he’d attended during the past year.
“It was my understanding [at the school board meeting at Highland Elementary School on May 22] that the school board was going to reach its budget priorities through its own budget, through the cuts that were discussed,” Turner said in the interview Monday. “I supported those objectives. I thought they had taken care of that with the cuts that were discussed at the Highland meeting.”
But on June 19, Butler appeared before the commissioners to warn of dire consequences if ABSS didn’t receive an extra $867,930 from the county. Arts and music programs could be cut – and ABSS could be forced to cut jobs, though most are state-funded – the superintendent warned that night.
Amping up the pressure on the commissioners
Earlier that day, the morning of June 19, ABSS officials took to the airwaves, apparently to pressure the commissioners to come up with additional money for the school system.
School board vice chairman Ryan Bowden and ABSS public information officer Les Atkins appeared on an early morning talk show on a country radio station owned by school board member Chuck Marsh – to “share how the county commissioners’ Revenue Neutral Budget” would cause ABSS to eliminate the raises it had planned to give coaches, along with the teacher supplement increase – and possible job losses in the school system, based on a description posted on the radio station’s Facebook page. (School board chairman Sandy Ellington-Graves had been scheduled to speak during the radio program or the commissioners’ June 19 meeting; she later told the newspaper that her absence was due to her having been hospitalized at the time.)
For his part, the commissioners’ vice chairman, Steve Carter, told the newspaper this week that he typically doesn’t make commitments in advance to provide county funding to any one agency or department.
“I’m one of five, and until we get into the budget and see what we’re dealing with, I don’t want to commit to one department or one agency as to what we’re going to do,” Carter explained in an interview Monday. “I support education; I’ve tried to help the two boards work together better. [During my] almost five years, one of my goals was to make the communication process smoother, and I felt like I had gotten there this year.”
“I don’t feel like I would’ve said anything different” [if he had known his meeting with the superintendent had been recorded].
– County commissioner vice chairman Steve Carter
“I don’t feel like I would’ve said anything different,” Carter told the newspaper Monday, had he known his meeting with the superintendent had been recorded. The vice chairman also agreed that Butler should’ve disclosed that he was recording, as a matter of professional courtesy, even if it’s not legally required. “I have had a subsequent conversation with Dr. Butler and said, ‘you know we’re okay; I understand why you did what you did and why you felt you needed to.’ It puts a different tone in the conversations going forward, and I told him he probably needs to understand that.”
Asked what he meant by “a different tone,” Carter said, “more measured.”
Lashley: “I will never go to Central Office again without proof the place isn’t bugged’
But both Paisley and Lashley remained irritated this week about having learned on June 19 that Butler had secretly recorded their initial meetings at his office.
“I thought it was just a casual, ‘I’m the new superintendent and want to work with the commissioners’ [type of meeting]. . . I have never secretly recorded any conversations. He talked about transparency and being straightforward – and he secretly recorded our conversation, without my knowing.”
– County commissioner chairman John Paisley, Jr.
“I thought it was just a casual, ‘I’m the new superintendent and want to work with the commissioners’ [type of meeting],” the commissioners’ chairman recalled Monday in an interview. “We didn’t discuss funding, but I did inform him he had worked with my wife when he was a teacher at Broadview. I expressed concern for the administration and support for education in general. We also discussed transparency and being straightforward with each other.”
The commissioners’ chairman also pointed out that the superintendent knew that he was being recorded “when he made statements in our meetings.
“I have never secretly recorded any conversations,” Paisley told the newspaper. “He talked about transparency and being straightforward – and he secretly recorded our conversation, without my knowing.”
Lashley said he had met with Butler last summer but there was no discussion at all about the budget. “I had information from the health board,” on which Lashley serves as a commissioner representative, about what he described as a “sex survey” that a now-former ABSS administrator had planned to launch in ABSS schools. “Every single ounce of information I had, I took to Dr. Butler’s office personally. There was no conversation about any budget items ever – there was no need to talk about the budget [last] July.”
Lashley told the newspaper that he has always maintained that any increase in the teacher supplement should be in line with the rate of inflation, which he estimated would’ve meant an increase of about .05 percent.
“All three of them [Butler, Bowden, and Ellington-Graves] knew where I stood on the teacher supplement,” Lashley said Monday. “I was never in the 1 percent camp.
“I said to Ryan Bowden,” Lashley recalled, “‘This would be a great way to show the county commissioners you mean what you say about making hard decisions.’ They chose not to. We had to fill in the blanks for them because they chose not to, and the commissioners got left holding the bag. You don’t have to have a PhD in finance to figure this out; you just need to have a little intestinal fortitude…Once again the school board [members] prove themselves not to be able to handle the hard decisions – they always want to put the hard decisions on someone else.”
Lashley was especially unsparing in his criticism of Butler’s decision to secretly record his “listening and learning” meetings with the commissioners, as the superintendent had described them.
“I will never go to another meeting at ABSS central office again unless I can get some proof that the place isn’t being bugged. That’s being a dishonest broker if you ask me.
– County commissioner Bill Lashley
“I will never go to another meeting at ABSS central office again unless I can get some proof that the place isn’t being bugged,” Lashley told the newspaper Monday. “That’s being a dishonest broker if you ask me.
“I worked for the New York Mercantile Exchange – I’m used to being recorded,” Lashley pointed out. “Knowing that my whole life is going to be recorded, I signed up for that. I did not sign up for the superintendent of Alamance-Burlington schools to be recording conversations with me because that does not seem to be the proper thing to do.”
School board chairman Sandy Ellington-Graves told the newspaper Wednesday that she hadn’t known – prior to the revelation at the commissioners’ meeting on June 19 – that Butler had recorded his conversations during his one-on-one meetings with each of the commissioners last summer. She also said Butler hadn’t mentioned the recordings to her; nor was she concerned about his having recorded the discussions.
The school board’s chairman said she wasn’t concerned that Butler had recorded his conversations with the commissioners. “It was my understanding,” said Ellington-Graves, “he did it to capture the conversation after the fact [to make sure everyone was on the same page].”
Read also the newspaper’s editorial page views on the superintendent’s secret recordings of meetings with individual county commissioners: https://alamancenews.com/superintendents-secret-recordings-are-nixon-esque/