Durham News

Durham County board backs Whitted renovation despite rising costs

The abandoned Whitted School building on Umstead Street was originally home to Hillside High School and a focal point for Durham’s black community.
The abandoned Whitted School building on Umstead Street was originally home to Hillside High School and a focal point for Durham’s black community. Durham County

The Durham Board of County Commissioners still supports the renovation of the Whitted School despite rising costs.

The board got an update last week from Deputy County Manager Lee Worsley on the project to turn the building that served as Durham’s first high school for blacks into senior housing and pre-kindergarten classrooms.

The financing picture for the project has changed due to the loss of $1.2 million in state historic-preservation tax credits after state legislators let that program expire at the end of the year.

Also, inflation has added another $1.2 million to the total because it took a year longer than expected to get low-income housing tax credits from the state.

All together, the cost of the project has jumped from just over $20 million to nearly $21.5 million, with the county, Durham Public Schools and the city putting in $9.2 million.

The cost for the county has jumped by $840,000 to $2.3 million.

DPS is to put in an additional $800,000, raising its contribution to $5.8 million. It will get $5 million of those funds from bonds and sales-tax revenue.

At Monday’s county commissioners meeting Worsley said the financing for the project “is the most complex deal I have ever seen” in 15 years of working in local government.

Commissioner Ellen Reckhow said she needs more information on operating costs for DPS once the project is completed.

She said that she had asked previous DPS Superintendent Eric Becoats whether DPS would return to the commissioners for operating costs for the pre-K classrooms and he had said no.

Reckhow said she wanted to check with new Superintendent Bert L’Homme to see if that was still the case.

Commissioners also wanted to know whether the new classrooms will truly expand the pre-K capacity of DPS of just shuffle existing classrooms.

The commissioners are likely to take an official vote on continuing the project later this month.

The developer, Atlanta-based The Integral Group, is also seeking $210,000 in county and city tax grants and may be exempt from property taxes for as long as 15 years.

The school site, owned by the county, is on Umstead Street just south of the Durham Freeway.

The school’s history goes back to 1887, when Durham established the first black grade school in North Carolina. In 1922, students moved into a new building on Umstead, next to black-only Hillside Park High School, ancestor to present-day Hillside High.

By 1949, the student body had outgrown Hillside Park High’s building and the city decided on a swap – moving the high school to the newer J.A. Whitted Elementary building near N.C. Central University, and the elementary pupils to Umstead Street, along with the Whitted name.

Later, Whitted Elementary became Whitted Junior High.