Sunk cost & manipulative funding: Chatham Board of Education must move forward with humility for the students’ sake

By Kate Dula

Pittsboro, NC – The Chatham Board of Education and administrators must move to end Covid-19 protocols in public schools. The initial concern and uncertainty of Spring 2020 and the proverbial strings attached to federal funding by the state should no longer be used to justify continuation of long-outdated policies. The unrecoverable sacrifices, or sunk costs, of the past should not prevent public officials from making the right decision now. More constituents must tell the Board of Education to stop treating each child in our county solely as if they are a vector of disease. They deserve to be treated like children, not like biohazards.

Chatham County Board of Education

What is sunk cost and how does it cloud our logic?

The term “sunk cost” refers to resources– time, money, effort, etc– that have already been spent. It’s gone, and you can’t get it back. The fallacy comes in when we allow guilt, pride, or other emotional attachment to past decisions to justify making an unsound decision in the present, especially in spite of drastic changes in circumstances. Sunk cost is a different issue than following through with a specific commitment, contract, or obligation. Nobody wants to feel like a “quitter,” but often the benefits of changing, or even reversing course, justify the pain of letting go of what’s already been done. It doesn’t mean the original investment was a poor decision. It only means that doing more of the same is a poor decision now. And, acknowledging sunk cost does not automatically mean we wasted our time and resources, especially if we learned something.

So, in light of sunk cost, the question is– what is the best decision today, when we now know that continuing on the same path would truly be wasteful — or should we reevaluate and move forward? It’s clear that we cannot let the sunk cost fallacy continue to cloud our judgement.

Members of the Chatham Board of Education are blind to this sunk cost and cling stubbornly to overreaching, harmful mandates. Board Member, Del Turner, stated in the January 2022 meeting that continued protocols are “common sense,” and fellow Board Member, Jane Allen Wilson, stated “children are vectors,” who may cause others to die. This point of view runs contrary to research which shows the community spread of Covid-19 from schools where masks are optional is extremely low.* Perhaps the Members of the Board of Education merely have good intentions, but a purely “safe” world can never be realized, and such misguided efforts punish our children disproportionately. Mr. Hamm has come to terms with this fact and voted “no” for universal masking at the three most recent meetings and made motions for optional masking of athletes (which failed due to lack of a second). Board Member, Melissa Hlavac has been absent for the last two votes on mask mandates.

How do “ESSER” funds promote continued mandates?

I do hope that our Board Members and administrators are merely victims of the sunk cost fallacy, but perhaps sunk cost is not the only factor at play. I hope that these public servants have not been dissuaded from ending the masking and quarantining by the allure of funding. I hope Chatham County Schools administrators, who recommend universal masking month after month, have not willfully perpetuated questionable Covid-19 mitigation policies in order to access state level distribution of federal ESSER (Elementary and Secondary Schools Educational Relief) funding. The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI) has been tasked with administering the ESSER funds, which by law must be used in limited ways for the mitigation of Covid-19 harms. In order to access millions of dollars in funds, school districts were asked by NCDPI to describe the extent to which they would implement “each element of the most up-to-date CDC guidance” and to describe how they will “implement strategies consistent, to the greatest extent practicable, with relevant CDC guidance” ( Document).

It is my sincere hope that our public officials are not allowing themselves to be manipulated, at our children’s expense, by the prospect of millions in federal funding which incentivizes the perpetual emergency mindset. As of January 2022, Chatham County Schools has spent $5 Million in time-sensitive ESSER funds and expects to receive $14 Million more to be spent by June 2024. Some legitimate uses of the funding include efforts to address learning loss and mental health, but Chatham County Schools has also used ESSER to fund an “Executive Director for Equity” position ($115k salary) and designated $1 million to be spent on Covid testing. For more information, see the January 2022 CCS ESSER Update ( Document). At minimum, funding of this type constitutes a major conflict of interest. While it makes sense for Chatham County Schools to take advantage of funds available to them, they should not do so by holding our children’s collective and individual well-being hostage.

More Chatham residents must take action.

Whether it’s the sunk cost or ESSER temptation holding us back, this distraction from providing excellent education to the youngest in our community cannot be allowed to go on in perpetuity.

We can disagree about whether protocols or attempts to fund our way out of a crisis have ever been justified, but that’s for historians to debate. Pivoting in a more fruitful direction requires humility, it requires setting aside the past, and looking clear-eyed at the present situation. Everyone school-age and older has had the option to get a vaccine if they chose. Surely public officials recognize that they have fewer and fewer excuses to continue this game. We must join the trend in North Carolina and throughout the country. The Chatham County Board of Education must establish a specific date that protocols will end and stick to it.  Changing course now is the best decision, regardless of what’s been in place before.

Mandatory mask use, social distancing, tracking, and quarantining must end. Silent lunches in our schools must end. Each of us must stop waiting for the dominoes to fall, because our local dominoes are glued down by funding and stubbornness. You must join the voices of the parents who have been challenging these policies every month. Don’t depend on someone else to do it.

If you care at all about the children of Chatham County, it is your duty to inform the Board of Education that they must end Covid-19 protocols. It’s not 2020, it’s 2022. It is the responsibility of families to decide what safety procedures they want to implement for their own children. The emotional attachment to previous policies and the manipulation tied to funding cannot be allowed to burden our children any longer.


What can you do?

Attend one of the One Chatham Focus Groups and make your opinion known about future plans for Chatham County Schools.

Email the Members of the Chatham County Board of Education

Attend the next Board Meeting on February 14, 2022 at 5:30pm, to be held in the Old Courthouse in Pittsboro and urge the board to make a change.

Fill out the One Chatham Online Survey, indicating you want Covid-style safety protocols to be off the table now and in the future.



* “CDC: Schools With Mask Mandates Didn’t See Statistically Significant Different Rates of COVID Transmission From Schools With Optional Policies” Document

* “Kids Full of Life, Adults Obsessed with Death: The insanity of masking children—by the numbers”  Document