The Durham school board hopes to put a $186 million bond referendum on the ballot in November to build a new elementary school in south Durham and replace Northern High School, among other projects.
The new school buildings have been identified as high priorities within Durham Public Schools’ capital improvement plan. The long-range goals also include another $248 million in renovation and construction costs within the next decade.
Most of the improvements are routine renovations of security, lighting and HVAC systems that are expected to provide big energy savings.
But Hugh Osteen, deputy superintendent of operational services, also highlighted larger-scale projects, such as a $7 million upgrade of Eno Valley Elementary School and plans to outfit high schools with updated track facilities and turf fields.
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During a joint meeting Monday between the school board and county commissioners, Osteen said Northern High School is overdue for replacement.
The new school will be built on the same location as the current one in essentially a five year-long switch. First, the parking lot and athletic fields will be razed and the new school constructed on top of them. Then, the old building will be torn down and replaced by new fields and lots.
“It will be challenging and expensive, but necessary,” he said. “I went to Northern High School, and I loved the place, but I’m ready for a new one.”
The 2007 bond provided funds for the planning and design of a school on Scott King Road, but this year’s bond would provide $21.7 million for its construction. The design was submitted to the school board in February.
I went to Northern High School, and I loved the place, but I’m ready for a new one.
Hugh Osteen, deputy superintendent of operational services
County Commissioner Ellen Reckhow questioned the addition of a new elementary school given that Durham Public Schools are below capacity and enrollment declined last year.
Osteen explained the schools in that particular region are overcrowded and the population is growing. He added that elementary schools overall are 98 percent full, or “pretty darn full.”
Reckhow also pointed out that the referendum, which will be on the ballot Nov. 8, may be more difficult to pass than in years past.
“The last three bonds that we’ve had were all successful, but they were all done in off-year elections,” Reckhow said. “The voters were largely the voters who were very familiar with local issues. In a presidential election there are a lot of people coming to the polls who don’t know that much about local issues. We need to be sensitive to the fact that we’ve got to be very judicious in what we put forward.”
She suggested a preliminary survey to see if the bond amount would pass, a strategy that proved helpful in 2007, and a public information campaign to tell residents about the projects and how they would be funded.
Osteen said he hoped to accelerate the process in order to submit the bond request to the county commissioners by their May meeting.
But according to County Manager Wendell Davis, the request may be limited by a $250 million cap on bonds.
School board chair Heidi Carter said this was the first time the board had heard a specific number from the county. “We’re not the only ones making requests for capital funding,” she added.
In other business
The two boards also discussed nominations to a pre-K task force, a joint project involving the school board, county commissioners and City Council. Although the task force was scheduled to be assembled by February 1, it is two months behind schedule.
“I want to see some movement,” school board member Matt Sears said. “I think we need to start talking to the community about when they can expect to know something about where we’re headed.”
Superintendent Bert L’Homme and County Manager Wendell Davis said they will collect suggestions from both boards’ members and nominate 15 members by April 1.