An administrative request to shift surplus funds from one school bond construction project to another prompted a contentious discussion of the Board of County Commissioners on Tuesday.
The five-member board ultimately approved moving the leftover money from Aberdeen Elementary to the new Southern Pines Elementary, but not without some fractured debate.
The item in question, involving a $1.56 million transfer, is normally a routine matter and originally had been slotted for the commissioners’ consent agenda. Consent agenda items are approved together in one action.
But during a Dec. 31 meeting to set the agenda, Commissioner Louis Gregory told commissioners chairman Frank Quis he had concerns about the item and wanted it removed.
Last weekend, Quis spoke with Board of Education Chairwoman Libby Carter about the money transfer. She told him the item would be discussed during the Monday meeting of the Board of Education.
A review of the meeting’s video recording confirms that discussion occurred, with Schools Superintendent Bob Grimesey saying that it had been pulled off the agenda and that he was unsure if it would be discussed by commissioners. At that time, there was no specific opposition or objections raised by any members of the school board.
“OK, thank you,” School Board member David Hensley says after Grimesey’s comments.
This past Tuesday morning, Carter and John Birath, Moore County Schools’ director of operations, met with Quis prior to the meeting and he approved putting the transfer request back on the commissioners’ agenda.
All Bond Money
Carter and Birath then presented the request to shift $1.56 million in unused funds from construction and furnishings of the new Aberdeen Elementary School to help pay down outstanding construction expenditures at the new Southern Pines Elementary. The latter school opened this past week off Morganton Road.
The funds are all part of a $103 million bond referendum overwhelmingly approved by voters in 2018 to build the Aberdeen and Southern Pines schools, as well as a new elementary school in Pinehurst. That final school is under construction and expected to open this summer.
In 2019, county leaders adopted a resolution that directed the school board to stay within the $103 million bond referendum, despite rising construction costs. Cost-cutting measures were implemented at all three construction sites, and a fund was set up to account for cost overruns.
When Aberdeen Elementary opened last August, it had a surplus of over $1.5 million. Birath said those monies, applied to Southern Pines Elementary, would reduce that project’s deficit from $2.68 million to $1.7 million.
Fortunately, final construction costs for Southern Pines Elementary ran less than predicted, leaving a final projected deficit of approximately $144,792.
There was some urgency to Tuesday’s request. County Manager Wayne Vest said Caroline Xiong, the county’s chief finance officer, had a bill for Southern Pines Elementary and it needed paying.
“The invoice will not be paid until we have sufficient funds,” Vest said.
Objections to Agenda Item Discussion
That wasn’t of concern to Gregory though. He said he was uncomfortable acting because he had assured some school board members that the matter wouldn’t come up Tuesday.
“They trusted me and if we go forward, then I have violated their trust,” Gregory said. “They have an opposition to this, that is what they told me.”
That was news to Carter. Commissioner Catherine Graham asked Carter to clarify if all of the members of the school board knew the capital project revision request would be presented at Tuesday’s meeting.
Carter said they were and that if there were any questions, they had the opportunity to be asked during the school board meeting.
“This is simply a matter of routine to roll over leftover funds. We are not asking for more money,” Carter reiterated. “They expressed no opposition last night.
“If anything, it is time to give (MCS) a pat on the back for making up for the shortage. We are building schools and we have to pay for them, and this is the money that was approved by our voters to do that,” Carter said.
In response to a question from Quis, Vest confirmed that commissioners previously had directed the school board to carry forward any savings from one bond project to another as needed.
“This was all part of the strategy and implementation,” Vest said. “So yes, this is in line with all of that discussion.”
By this point of the meeting, Gregory had attempted to reach School Board member David Hensley by text and requested a five-minute recess to “make some phone calls.”
When discussion resumed, Gregory asked for the transfer to be delayed until the Board of Education could “iron this out.”
Graham backed Gregory’s request, but it failed on a 2-3 vote. The money transfer was then approved unanimously.
Quis said he took responsibility for placing the questioned item back on the agenda, noting he was under the impression the school board had been notified the previous evening.
“It is my hope that they can settle these things at the school board meetings and not here,” he said. “Whether the new board members agree with these accounting measures or not, to me it is a matter for them to work out at their meeting.
Gregory said he agreed “wholeheartedly” and that he would like to see the school board take care of their concerns before an item was presented to the commissioners for review and potential action.
“This is a school board problem not a commissioner problem,” Gregory said. “I hate that we are in this conversation at all...I do not like having the school board and county commissioners not working together. We need to work together. If you have a problem you need to work it out and then come to us.”
Carter responded that the matter had been explained to the entire school board, and all of the information was included in a meeting packet distributed Dec. 31.
Gregory said he did not know why three school board members — only Hensley’s name was mentioned — did not want to go forward with the request.
Reached Wednesday, Hensley said he was “very disappointed to learn” of Carter’s and Birath’s presentation.
Hensley said when the issue of the revision request was brought up, he questioned whether any decision or motion would be made.
“I was told no. Then, later on, I asked the chair and I asked the superintendent: ‘Are there any plans to present this to the county commissioners?’ The superintendent hemmed and hawed a bit but he said no,” he said. “They really, in my opinion, lied by omission. I didn’t fully share my thoughts because they said there was no decision or action to be taken and I wanted to think about it for a week.”
Asked for specifics on his objection to the revision request, Hensley said, “Instead of adding more gold plating to Southern Pines Elementary, I think the county should consider taking the additional money to fix decrepit schools elsewhere in the county.”
At Tuesday’s meeting, Quis said the county had an obligation to pay its bills. However, he cautioned Carter that it was important especially now that there are new school board members in place to “make every effort” to communicate clearly.
“Let’s be transparent and positive and work together to deliver good schools.”