County leaders devise $493M plan to fund Durham school repairs, renovations

Posted February 4, 2020 7:40 p.m. EST

— Durham County commissioners on Tuesday proposed a $493.3 million plan to help address building needs at local schools.

Students at Morehead Montessori Magnet Elementary School are now attending classes at different buildings because the school's heating system recently failed and could take weeks to repair.

Durham Public Schools officials said that is just one example of a growing list of needs to keep aging schools running.

"What we’re dealing with at Morehead could have been prevented with a higher amount of maintenance funding," said Julius Monk, DPS' chief operating officer. "So, we’re not only asking for what we need to replace those items that have already surpassed their life, but we’re also looking to prolong the life of equipment that’s going to remain, that we’re not going to be able to replace."

The school district has $727 million in needed repairs and renovations over the next 10 years, Monk said, but officials asked for $468 million to meet "critical needs."

"The schools came to us last week with a list," said Wendy Jacobs, chairwoman of the county Board of Commissioners. "We came back today and said, 'We’re not just going to give you $468 million. We’re going to give you $493 million – so more than what you said are your priorities.'"

The money would comes in stages:

  • The county will issue $144.4 million in limited obligation bonds, which don't require voter approval for Northern High School and “other most pressing needs.”
  • Another $10 million will comes from state lottery funds.
  • A $211.6 million bond proposal will be placed on the 2022 ballot and would require a property tax increase.
  • The final $127.3 million would come in a second bond referendum in 2026, but officials said that wouldn't require another tax increase.

Durham County cannot afford to fund all $727 million in school building needs, Jacobs said.

"We have financial capacity, just like any person does," she said.

Monk called the $493 million "a good start."

"Right now, we have zero, and we have definitely more need than we have funding," he said.

But school board member Minnie Forte-Brown was less enthusiastic about the plan.

"I don’t want to say it’s chicken change, but it’s not something we can – we have old schools," Forte-Brown said. "We got stuff that’s happening all the time, so I don’t want us to be lulled into thinking that a half-billion dollars is going to be a big amount. It’s not."

Betsy Stikeleather, who has a child at the Durham School of the Arts, said that, while the money isn't enough to cover all school building needs, she's not disappointed with the county plan.

"We know there will always be more maintenance, more renovations that they’ll need," Stikeleather said.

DSA, for example, leaks in heavy rains and has air quality issues.

"There’s a sewage situation that, it’ll knock you off your socks when you walk by it," she said.

"[The schools] need to be modernized," Monk said. "They need to have the appropriate spaces for our students, and then the physical characteristics of it also need to be updated so we can make sure we’re providing a healthy and clean environment for them."

County commissioners haven't scheduled a formal vote on the funding plan.

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