Discovery Charter School leaders to request one year delay in opening S.T.E.A.M.-themed middle school

A rendering of the proposed Discovery Charter School, a S.T.E.A.M.-themed middle school for about 400 students that’s planned for the northern part of Durham County.
A rendering of the proposed Discovery Charter School, a S.T.E.A.M.-themed middle school for about 400 students that’s planned for the northern part of Durham County.

The opening of Discovery Charter School, a S.T.E.A.M.-themed public charter school proposed for northern Durham, will likely be delayed a year while Durham County prepares to fend off a probable legal challenge from a group of neighbors.

The Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics (S.T.E.A.M.) middle school for about 400 students was supposed to open in September in a new facility at 501 and 505 Orange Factory Road that was supposed to be completed by August.

But Discovery's Board of Directors met Tuesday and agreed to ask the State Board of Education to delay its opening until the fall of 2018, agreeing that the legal challenge would make an already tight construction schedule impossible to meet.

“When Discovery began accepting applications in January of this year, we were assured by our developer and our lender that if we closed on our financing and property acquisition by March 28 our school would be ready for students in September,” Carl Forsyth, a founding member of the school's Board of Directors said Wednesday. “We had a plan in place and a construction timetable that was realistic"

If Discovery receives permission from state officials, delaying the opening of the school would impact at least 320 families who have already applied to enroll their children in Discovery in the fall.

Discovery appeared before the Durham County Board of Adjustment on February 28 and County Commissioners on March 13 and received approval for site plan construction and financing.

Forsyth said the board recently learned that the Durham County Attorney's Office had been contacted by an attorney for some county residents who plan to appeal the Board of Adjustment decision in Superior Court.

“Because an appeal is imminent and because of the financial risk to our lender and developer, our lender has decided to let the appeals process run its course prior to closing on the property,” Forsyth said. “This directly impacts our ability to sign a construction contract.”

Neighbors have complained that nearby roads are already well-traveled and aren't wide enough to handle the additional traffic the school is projected to bring.

They have also expressed concern about the potential harm to nearby Little River Reservoir.

Cliff Teasley, a farmer who lives in Mangum Township near the proposed project, told County Commissioners earlier this year that neighbors worry that if the school builds a septic system and it fails, years of work to protect the reservoir would be for naught.

“You have done so much already to protect that water, and I’m proud of you for that and I don’t want to see it endangered,” Teasley told commissioners.

Forsyth said both the builder and the lender remain committed to the project.

“Our developer and lender are totally committed to our school and this project,” Forsyth said. “When the appeals process is complete, we will close on our property and begin the construction of our buildings. We anticipate closing on the deal in late summer 2017.”

Discovery has been the subject of much discussion among leaders of the Durham Public Schools who, due to budgetary constraints, had to postpone the opening of DPS’ own S.T.E.A.M.-themed school, Eagle Academy, which was supposed to open on the campus of N.C. Central University this fall.

Much of DPS' budgetary request for about $5 million in “new money” from County Commissioners for the 2017-18 school year was being driven by a projected 700 student enrollment growth in charter schools, much of it generated by Discovery.

Greg Childress: 919-419-6645, @gchild6645