Monday, June 17, 2024

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Graham, NC 27253
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Thompson: No more ‘band aids’; Former school board chairman quashes proposals to provide more capital funds for school system

A personal crusade against what she construed as public policy “Band-Aids” has led one member of Alamance County’s governing board to scuttle some recent efforts to offer financial first-aid to the Alamance-Burlington school system.

In her stated zeal to avoid the proverbial quick fix, commissioner Pam Thompson helped sink two different proposals that came up during a four-hour meeting on Monday to provide the school system with funds for a number of maintenance-related ventures.

At one point that evening, Thompson relied on the Band-Aid analogy to derail a staff-level plan to increase a forthcoming bond issue that would’ve bankrolled new roofs and HVAC systems at area schools. In the meantime, Thompson resorted to this same rhetorical flourish to persuade her fellow commissioners to postpone a potential outlay on some ramshackle bleachers at Cummings High School in Burlington.

In both of these cases, the board’s proposed allocations were meant to address needs that the commissioners had previously identified among their own foremost priorities for the Alamance-Burlington school system.

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In fact, the state of the bleachers at Cummings proved so troubling to the commissioners that they singled them out for special treatment last month when they appeared in the county manager’s proposed outlay for the school system’s capital needs in the next fiscal year. The commissioners ultimately resolved to drop this project from the county manager’s proposed allocation so they could decide whether it ought to be expedited during the current financial cycle.

During the board’s meeting on Monday, commissioner Craig Turner urged his colleagues to formally sign off on the funds to enable the school system to begin work on the bleachers.

According to assistant county manager Brian Baker, the school system won’t have enough time to replace the bleachers in their entirety before football season ramps up again in the fall. Even so, he said that an immediate infusion of cash would allow the rusted support structures to be repaired in time for the first kick off.

This apparent half-measure nevertheless drew a rebuke from Thompson, who had served on the Alamance-Burlington school board before she joined the commissioners in 2020.

“I think they deserve a new set of bleachers,” the school board member turned commissioner declared. “But I think it’s ridiculous to spend a third [of the total cost] to replace something and it’s still not going to be fixed.

“We’re in a mess at the school system because of Band-Aids,” she added as she whipped out a box of the brand-name bandages to illustrate her point. “The key is to get them fixed and have them stay fixed…Let’s do this right.”

After he heard Thompson’s argument, Turner said that he’d like to hear the school system present both the short-term and the long-term proposals so that the commissioners can select the best option for the bleachers at Cummings.

“I think we need to make a decision to get this thing fixed – it’s just a question of which way,” he added, “and I don’t want to miss a window to get something fixed by football season.”

Turner was much less amenable to Thompson’s intervention later that evening when she reiterated her opposition to “Band-Aids” to quash a proposal to beef up an impending bond issue that the commissioners recently authorized on behalf of the school system.

Earlier this month, the commissioners voted 4-to-0 to sell $19.5 million in bonds that were left over from a $150 million package that the county’s voters had greenlit in 2018. By that point, the commissioners had already squeezed $150 million in revenue out of the bond package, although the funds they obtained were a combination of the voter-approved “principal” and so-called “premium,” or additional debt that bond purchasers had offered the county at more advantageous terms. At the suggestion of the county’s finance staff, the commissioners had mixed and matched the premium and principal to obtain the best possible deal, although in doing so they were left with $19.5 million in unissued principal, which they initially resolved not to tap in order to keep the total debt within the margins of the $150 million figure that the voters had passed.

The commissioners eventually reconsidered their decision to issue the leftover premium in order to replace some aging roofs and HVAC systems that were deemed partly responsible for a massive mold infestation that delayed the start of the school year in 2023. Thompson ultimately joined the three other commissioners when they voted to cash out the remainder of the bond package to bankroll these projects. (Commissioner Bill Lashley didn’t take part in the vote due to a sudden health crisis.)  Even so, the county’s administrators admitted that the resulting cache of $19.5 million would still leave some urgent roofing and HVAC projects without the revenue needed to complete them.

On Monday, Susan Evans, the county’s finance director, encouraged the commissioners to “accept” any additional premium that may be on offer when the county issues the remaining principal on May 29. Evans added that this move could provide the schools with enough money to knock out its top-tier projects and begin work on the first of several second-tier ventures.

“What we could possibly see is an additional $2 million that we would receive in premium,” she predicted. “This would allow us to continue the momentum on those roofing and HVAC projects, keeping them going.”

Evans added that the county could take on this extra debt without exceeding the ceiling that the commissioners have previously set for the bond package’s annual debt payments. She noted that the commissioners have already budgeted the funds to pay back the additional revenue.

“Those funds are covered,” she said, “without any additional increase in taxes on the citizens.”

The finance director’s suggestion was quickly embraced by Turner and by Steve Carter, the vice chairman of Alamance County’s commissioners. It failed to make the grade, however, with their chairman John Paisley, Jr., who repeated his oft-stated refrain that the school system isn’t doing anything with the cash it receives from the county.

Due to Lashley’s continued absence on Monday, Thompson found herself in a position to cast the deciding vote on the premium question. Yet, the former school board member opted to quash the proposal on the grounds that the county ought to be doing much more to repair the school system’s roofs and HVACs.

“If I really thought this was all that was needed to get this done, I would say, ‘hey, go for it,’” she said. “But we need much more.”

Thompson went on to proclaim that she’d stick to her original pledge to milk the bond package from 2018 for no more than the $150 million the voters had authorized. None of her colleagues remarked on the fact that she had previously voted to issue the remaining $19.5 in principal, which had brought to total sum which the county had obtained from the package to nearly $170 million.

But whatever the merits of her decision, it dealt the final blow to the finance director’s proposal, which failed due to the board’s 2-to-2 deadlock.

This outcome seemed to visibly irk Turner, who had made the motion to accept any premium that’s offered during the upcoming bond issue. Immediately after the vote, Turner rose from his seat and requested a break, and he began to make his way from the dais even before Paisley had declared the meeting in recess.

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