School district facility plan emphasizes existing schools

Nov. 29, 2013 @ 04:27 PM

The school district’s new $396.7 million long-range facility plan focuses less on the building of new schools while placing greater emphasis on renovating existing ones.
The plan, approved by the school board last week, will be used to guide construction of possibly two new elementary schools and renovations to dozens of existing schools over the next decade.
“There are some new schools mentioned, but we’ve done a lot of that in the past and it’s time to really focus on the existing infrastructure,” Hugh Osteen, the school district’s chief operations officer, told school board members.
The school district last updated the plan in 2010, when it carried a $325 million price tag, which is about $71 million lower than the 2013 version of the plan.
“We have pent-up capital needs at our schools related to deferred maintenance we’ve had since 2008,” said School board Chairwoman Heidi Carter. “That will drive up the cost of facilities planning.”
Under the new plan, the lion’s share of the money -- $184.3 million -- would be spent on elementary schools. High schools would get $144 million and middle schools $51 million.
The plan also calls for spending $16.5 million on facilities that house administrative functions such as the Fuller Building downtown.
Much of the needed renovation and repair work for schools and administrative facilities includes new roofs and heating and cooling units.  
Like in the past, school officials must sell the community on a bond referendum to pay for the improvements.
Durham last approved a bond referendum for schools in 2007, when voters signed off on $193.4 million for schools.
Voters also approved $105.3 million in school bonds in 2003 and $51.8 million in 2001.
A school bond referendum is expected to be on the agenda Dec. 17 when the school board and county commissioners hold a joint quarterly meeting.
“We’ll be communicating with county commissioners and our staff to determine the best time to do that,” Carter said. “We wouldn’t do a bond all at once. We’d break it into chunks.” 
Renovations to existing schools would account for $350 million of the $396.7 and the remaining $46.8 million would go to build two new elementary schools officials said are needed to accommodate an expected enrollment growth of nearly 1,350 students.
The new elementary school “F,” as it is called in the planning document, would be built in South Central Durham to ease crowding at Hope Valley, Lakewood and Southwest elementary schools.
The $25.1 million, 85,000-square-foot school would be built on 33.1 acres at 3901 South Roxboro Street
Meanwhile, the $21.7 million elementary school “C” would be built on 46.2 acres on Scott King Road, and it too would be 85,000 square feet.
School officials said the school would ease crowding at Creekside, Parkwood and Bethesda elementary schools.  
Both schools would have the capacity to enroll 648 students.
Osteen said it is not yet clear which school would need to be built first.
With high school enrollment expected to remain relatively stable over the next 10 years, the school district does not foresee a need to build a new high school.
However, the facility plan calls for a $27.8 million, extensive renovation of Northern High School, which was built in 1953 and last renovated in 1994.
In addition to a standard 20-year “cyclical renovation,” the school would also get a roof replacement, major athletic upgrades and full replacement of kitchen equipment.
The hefty price tag of the proposed renovation at Northern High – it amounts to more than half of the $47 million or more Osteen said it would cost to build a new high school -- led School board member Nancy Cox to wonder if the district might be better off replacing Northern.
“It’s a scary proposition to consider closing a building and having to have children go different places while you’re under construction for two years, but we’ve been out to Northern High School, we had county commissioners out there last year, it’s our oldest high school,” Cox said. “It’s just something to start thinking about.” 
Meanwhile, School board member Leigh Bordley applauded the district’s facility planning, noting that Durham is well served by a process that includes professional demographers working to help plan for growth so the district can strategically place new schools and renovate them when they need it and not before.
But Bordley complained that charter schools have proven to be disruptive forces in the planning process.
“Charter schools, regardless of what kind of educational value you think they have, disrupts this process,” Bordley said. “Our county does not regulate where charter schools are placed so they can pop up randomly within this system that we have, and they can close.”