The Durham Public Schools board will give the Whitted redevelopment project another $800,000, although several board members expressed reservations at last week’s meeting.
DPS has already committed $5 million to the project, which will turn the former school into senior housing and a preschool.
Despite several concerns voiced, the board voted 6-1 to back the project.
“As a citizen, I very much want Whitted to be redeveloped,” said board member Leigh Bordley. “I really don’t believe that the school system should be as responsible as we have become through this project for doing that.”
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The building has been unused for at least eight years, said Deputy County Manager Lee Worsley. The preschool component would feature eight preschool classrooms serving 144 students.
Durham County currently owns the building. The county, city, DPS and the developer, Integral Development LLC, have all committed to contributing funding to the project.
Development costs have increased since DPS made its previous financial commitment to the project because the state legislature let historic tax credits expire, resulting in a loss of more than $1 million in tax credits that would have gone toward the building, Worsley said.
It also took two attempts to get the building approved for senior housing tax credits, adding time onto the development of the project and thus additional costs, Worsley said.
All of DPS’ funding given to the project will go to the preschool, said Hugh Osteen, the deputy superintendent of operational services.
The $800,000 committed will be transferred from bonds currently assigned to W.G. Pearson Middle School.
“We’re in a situation where this is pitting pre-K students – who we very much want to serve – against the needs of our k-12 students, who we very much want to serve,” Bordley said.
One major concern for several board members was that Durham County has yet to commit to covering operating costs of the facility.
“I was just disappointed that there wasn’t a firm decision made on the part of the county because it would actually be very helpful to hear that. In our discussion, it’s been brought up many times that we’re not a development organization,” said board member Sendolo Diaminah.
“What we want to see as a school board is … an increase in the amount of pre-K happening in our county,” he said.
Durham County originally committed $1.5 million to the project. When costs increased, it committed an additional $800,000, the same amount as DPS, Worsley said.
He said operating costs still need to be discussed.
“That’s one item among a number of items we’ll have to work through on the development agreement,” Worsley said.
Although several board members believe the project is good for the community, they also think that the school system should not be responsible for preservation and affordable housing.
“It’s the preservation driving this conversation and this decision, which locks us into being less child-friendly and less efficient than we need to be during these tight budgetary times,” said board member Natalie Beyer, who was the only member to vote against the additional funding.
Board Chairwoman Heidi Carter said, despite all of the board’s concerns, she thinks the project will be good for the neighborhood and therefore good for students.
“We certainly have a vested interest in safe neighborhoods, in community revitalization, in community development – we know those help students in our schools,” she said.