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'Tough decisions to make': Alamance-Burlington superintendent anticipates deep budget cuts

Alamance-Burlington interim superintendent Bill Harrison (center) takes his oath of office Mar. 18, 2024
Les Atkins
Alamance-Burlington School System
Alamance-Burlington interim superintendent Bill Harrison (center) takes his oath of office Mar. 18, 2024

It’s been a rough six months for the Alamance-Burlington School System.

The district between the Triangle and Triad has experienced financial problems for years, but it went broke after spending $26 million cleaning up mold at nearly all its school buildings last summer.

Since then, district leaders have been at odds with Alamance County Commissioners about how to bring their public schools out of financial crisis.

Two school administrators have resigned in the last two months, including the superintendent.

But Bill Harrison says he can help. He first served as the Alamance-Burlington superintendent from 2014 to 2018, and agreed to come back until the fall.

Harrison spoke with WUNC's Will Michaels about his goals for the next six months.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

WILL MICHAELS: What would you call a successful tenure as interim superintendent?

BILL HARRISON: Number one priority is to get a budget in front of the county commissioners that they can support, and that will support our kids going into the 24-25 school year.

I think there are some relationships that we need to work on. I'm meeting with all our principals, asking them what they see as the greatest strength of the system or their school, greatest challenge at this time, and how I can support them during my short tenure here.

MICHAELS: How do you go about bringing the school system back into good financial standing and can you do that without having to either cut back hours or positions?

HARRISON: No. I think there are there are going to be cuts.

90% of our overall budget is people. We're hoping we can accommodate most of those cuts through positions that are already vacant. We're hoping that we can simply recoup some money on some lapsed salaries. When I met with the principals the other day, I generally talked in a very positive terms about my vision, but I also closed it with letting them know there are going to be some tough decisions that I'm going to have to make.

MICHAELS: You talked about wanting to improve some relationships. And I know you're aware of how contentious some county commissioners meetings got between commissioners themselves and leaders of the school system. How do you improve that relationship?

HARRISON: That's why I reached out to the county manager, the first person or one of the first people I wanted to see.

I went to the commissioners meeting my first day on the job. I know the chairman from my time here before. One of the members was a member of our board. And I know two others from from my time in the past. So I know four of the five.

I hope I bring to the table some credibility in their eyes. I hope they know after having seen me for four years that my absolute commitment is to the children in this county and providing them the very best we can and we'll see how it goes. I'm optimistic. I wouldn't have come if I didn't think it was doable.

MICHAELS: I wonder, because you've been in the position before, what you make of the conversation about the historic underfunding of schools in Alamance County. Where do county commissioners fit into that versus the state? Because of course, there's still a dispute in North Carolina courts about whether state funding is adequate based on the Leandro case that was first filed back in the 90s.

HARRISON: I've watched the state back away over the last number of years. I mean, I was superintendent in Hoke County when the suit was filed. Robb Leandro was an eighth-grade student in our school system.

And I remember the first year we got low wealth money was the year the state stopped paying for our utility bills. So right there, we had a quick trade off; we get a little bit of state money, but that has to go to replace the state money that was taken out.

But I do know, the commissioners made a good faith effort in the four years I was here. We put together a $150 million bond package because the commissioners supported that so I think we had a couple of base hits, a couple of doubles. Maybe we'll hit a homerun this time.

Will Michaels is WUNC's Weekend Host and Reporter.
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