Tuesday, June 18, 2024

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Graham, NC 27253
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Years of ABSS ignoring damage from water leaks in schools has contributed to apparent proliferation of mold


ABSS officials are almost breathless with alarm about the possibility that mold may be present in, possibly, more than a dozen of the school system’s 37 schools.

They’re ostensibly so apoplectic, in fact, that the school administration has now postponed the start of school by a week.

(Frankly, we would think that should be a school board determination, but instead the superintendent has unilaterally decided to make a postponement.  We’re also not at all sure that he, or the school board, quite frankly has authority to delay the start of the school year, based on state law.)

But aside from procedural questions and reservations, the school system’s alarm and the panic for. . .wait for it. . . more tax money to clean up any actual mold found is not some new, or even unexpected, crisis.

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Rather it is the predictable culmination of years of ABSS officials’ neglect.  School officials have repeatedly, for years, ignored publicly available information from the county’s health department, which has consistently warned of damage within numerous schools from leaky roofs and other structural problems.

While experts tell us that leaky roofs are not necessarily THE cause for all of the school system’s mold problems, there appears to be a strong correlation between the water damage identified by the health department and where school officials now suspect mold may be a problem.

In 2018, the school system even sued one roofing manufacturer for roof failures at several schools, that led to leaking conditions.  What happened to the $1 million in proceeds from the settlement with the company – that were supposed to be used to fix the leaky roofs?

Additionally, elsewhere in this edition, we outline at some length the conclusions of annual health department reports on water damage at ABSS schools.

Now, superintendent Dr. Dain Butler has used as his rationalization for many ABSS (and school board) failings that he wasn’t in the top ABSS job until last July (2022).  “It’s not my fault,” is the underlying message.

But that justification won’t absolve him from responsibility in most of these mold cases. He was in charge this year when the school system has failed to act on 18 reports from the health department this year alone.  All of these warnings have occurred on his watch.

And many of the 2022 health department reports, completed in June just before his July 1 arrival,  he should have known about, and done something about, as well.

More than a dozen among the 18 problems identified in 2022 are the same schools that, a year later, were still on the health department’s list of problems (in most cases, the same ones, again) for 2023.

Another aspect that is his fault – but which he usually wants to avoid admitting – was the raid last November (i.e., during his tenure) on Covid money that could have been used for these repairs, but was, instead, used to give yet another round of bonuses. (More on the school board’s role in that below.)



Raiding federal money to pay employee bonuses, probably leaving commissioners and county taxpayers holding the bag

One issue from the past that the school superintendent always likes to avoid (because he wasn’t here), but which the school board members can’t explain away (because they were) is the multi-million diversion of money from HVAC repairs and improvements that were to be undertaken with $37.5 million of a big $69.5 million pot (later, almost $80 million) of Covid-relief money from Washington.

Like free manna from Washington, schools systems across the country received a windfall in “federal money” that they were supposed to use to address “air quality” issues within schools, even if the issues were only tangentially related to Covid – say for mold, for instance.

But instead, the school board voted two years ago (in October 2021), 4-3, to use $10.5 million from that pot of money to give $3,000 teacher bonuses, instead.

So $10.5 million was reprogrammed away from air quality improvements. The same group whittled away at the Covid stimulus again – to give employees another $2,000 bonus – in November 2022.   Total price tag: about $8.2 million. (As noted, the superintendent was a part of that subsequent decision.)

School board members will inevitably want to avoid any mention of this topic – several of them really chafe at being reminded of their fiscal irresponsibility now that the consequences are even more starkly evident and the 2024 elections come closer into view.

But we suspect readers won’t be surprised to find out that a number of the schools that were omitted from the HVAC and air quality upgrades as a result of the 2021 and 2022 raids on the Covid-relief money are now the very ones where mold is suspected.

So whose fault is that?

Granted, the superintendent isn’t responsible for policies and decisions before his arrival.   But he’s certainly complicit in at least one since his arrival.

But the school board is, especially the three most senior members who voted to siphon almost $19 million from money that could have been used for air quality projects.

Three of the present members – now chairman Sandy Ellington-Graves, vice chairman Ryan Bowden, and Donna Westbrooks were part of that 4-3 majority who raided the Covid money in those 2021 and 2022 votes. [Patsy Simpson, who resigned earlier this year, was the fourth member of that majority.]

Give ex post facto credit to then-school board members Allison Gant, Tony Rose, and Wayne Beam for having voted against both raids.  They can, quite rightly, point to the predictable, and dire, consequences of that decision as the mold problems have burst onto the current agenda.

In fact, commissioners may well remember the warning of then-school board member Rose, who questioned, “Do the commissioners know that we’re giving bonuses with federal money, and do they approve of this?”  No one asked them, but the  consequences of plundering the federal funds are now coming home to roost.

In fact, Rose surmised that the county taxpayers would ultimately be left holding the bag for the diversion of money from HVAC upgrades.  Welcome to next week’s joint meeting where, we suspect, that will be precisely where  commissioners will be asked to turn to bail out the school system for the school board’s ill-advised actions.

If the positions of Rose, Gant, and Beam had prevailed in either 2021 or 2022, the school and the public might not be experiencing this meltdown over mold.


Bowden’s smokescreen

Another smokescreen is one raised by school board member Bowden, one of the fiscally irresponsible members from those 2021 and 2022 votes.

Last week, Bowden floated a justification that is truly a sham: that mold is an inherent problem in ABSS schools simply because ABSS has predominantly “old” school buildings.

“The days of putting a band-aid on a 50- or 60-year-old building just aren’t working anymore,” Bowden claimed during a meeting last week.

By a “band-aid,” he apparently refers to regular maintenance.

If the school system – even during the relatively brief almost three years he’s been on the board – had been more diligent to ensure regular maintenance, the county wouldn’t be having mold problems, at least not of this magnitude.

No, school buildings of equal or older vintage across the state and nation are not having mold problems when they have been properly maintained.


A manufactured crisis?

So how is the county – whether commissioners or school board – to get out of this school system-generated mess?

In fact, we’re not at all convinced that this isn’t a contrived crisis, or even a manufactured stunt – designed, as is the school system’s propensity, to whip up public pressure to persuade commissioners to hit up local taxpayers to give them more money.  (An almost constant refrain of school systems and school boards in memoriam.)

And in the process, they hope everyone, including commissioners,  will forget, or ignore, that it was the school system that has either squandered or failed to target previous millions of tax dollars to real needs, such as mold remediation.

We’re relatively sure that some commissioners will let the school system off the hook from responsibility even though school officials and school board members are solely responsible for having created this crisis – or allowed it to develop – in the first place.

We share the skepticism of many public comments we’ve heard over the past few days, wondering how and where the millions of dollars that the school system had for these purposes were allegedly targeted and spent.

But surely some safeguards should be adopted with whatever degree of new financial bailout for the school system is inevitably discussed.

The most important is that we think some form of outside oversight and accountability should be a mandatory prerequisite.

This probably needs to be in the form of some independent person or agency – since the school system appears to be incapable of managing or overseeing the situation responsibly, or even acknowledging the presence of a problem altogether.

Until a week before school starts – or was supposed to.

In addition to having a full accounting of how earlier millions were spent, commissioners should insist on safeguards before providing even a dime more for the school system.

One formula that seems to have worked well, both within ABSS and ACC, is to have an overseer – such as what’s known in the profession as a construction manager at risk  – whose sole job it is to ensure the efficient expenditure of funds and that the projects are completed on time, and within the budgeted amounts.

Surely taxpayers deserve at least this much.

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