30 years and school’s “friggin’” AC still doesn’t work, says Durham school board member

Northern High School was once a state powerhouse in football. Parents point to the large hole in the roof near the track as example of the repairs needed while students await construction of a new high school.
Northern High School was once a state powerhouse in football. Parents point to the large hole in the roof near the track as example of the repairs needed while students await construction of a new high school.

If anyone can relate to complaints about Northern High School, it's Durham school board member Steve Unruhe who worked there 30 years ago.

"I taught there in '87, '88, and the friggin' air conditioner didn't work then," said Unruhe, a retired Durham Public Schools math teacher.

Now, a generation later, Unruhe's daughter is following in his footsteps as a Northern teacher, and the school's heating and cooling system remains unpredictable.

"She has a summer dress and a winter coat in her room because she doesn't know from day-to-day what the [temperature in her classroom] is going to be," Unruhe said.

Unruhe's remarks at a school board meeting this spring echoed those made recently by parents, students and teachers. They seemed willing to live with heating and cooling problems, leaky roofs, mold and mildew and security concerns at the 1950s-era school awhile longer because a new school was coming in 2020.

But the plan for a new school on the existing site is now in jeopardy.

The projected cost of the new school has soared to $71 million due to higher-than-expected construction costs.

That's about $20 million more than the $51.2 million voters approved for the school as part of a $90 million bond referendum in 2016.

"I have a child who will graduate from Northern in 2020," said Kelly Horton. "We were told when we entered Northern that we would be getting a new building by the time he graduates."

Part of the new Northern High School would be built on school’s baseball field (left), which was once a pond. Greg Childress

Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools (CHCCS) was also recently stung by increased construction costs that pushed the price of its Chapel Hill High School renovation from $44 million to about $64 million. The school district had to scrap other projects to pay for the more expensive high school project.

Builders' market

The higher construction costs in Durham and throughout the Triangle are due to a booming local economy that enables construction companies to charge a premium and to pick and choose projects.

"Our region is booming, and the recent bids have reflected that," said Jon Long, the school district’s executive director of construction and capital planning.

It's almost certain that Northern students won't have a new school in place by 2020, so parents want some of the current problems fixed now.

Kim Vaughan, the mother of a Northern freshman, noted that the school has more than 80 exterior doors, which she contends places students at risk.

"It could be years down the road before a new school opens," Vaughan said. "What are they going to do to make Northern safe now?"

Vaughan's daughter plays softball and visits newer schools in surrounding counties for away games. She said her daughter is embarrassed by Northern's facilities when other teams visit.

"She's had a great experience at Northern," Vaughan said. "The teachers are fabulous, and the teachers and students deserve an updated facility."

School district leaders are considering whether to find a new site for the school to bypass soil and wetland issues adding to the cost.

Building on the existing site would add an additional $4 million to the project because a ball field on which a part of the new school is supposed to be built was constructed on a pond.

Either way, DPS, which relies on Durham County for local funding, must find the extra $20 million to cover the higher than expected construction costs.

"The funding piece is the biggest hole," Long said.

Bond referendum

District leaders are holding on to hope that a proposed state-wide school bond referendum will be placed on the November ballot, but the referendum has not been embraced by state GOP leaders who control the General Assembly.

Gov. Roy Cooper has recommended a November 2018 referendum for $2 billion in bonds for school construction. The referendum is supported by the N.C. School Boards Association (NCSBA) and N.C. Association of County Commissioners, which have asked for help funding nearly $8 billion in expected school construction needs over the next five years.

"That's what we're looking at to help us rebuild Northern," said Durham school board member Minnie Forte-Brown, who also chairs the NCSBA.

Long said once the money is found, DPS can move along with whatever option it decides to replace Northern.

"I still think in that equation, a new site is a better 50-to 75-year result," Long said.

But in the short-term,. school board members said the district has to take steps to make Northern a more comfortable and safer place.

"With more than 80 entrances, there's no way you can protect that and make that safe," Forte-Brown said.

School board Chairman Mike Lee said an assessment team from Operational Services will take a look at what's needed to improve conditions at Northern over the summer.

"Even though we're going to be building a new school, we have to provide a safe and comfortable environment for learning," Lee said.

In the meantime, Horton's son will continue to pack a sweatshirt in his book bag these last few days of school.

"He doesn't know if it's going to be 55 degrees or to the point where it's 90 in the the classroom," Horton said.

Greg Childress: 919-419-6645, @gchild6645
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