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Neighbors question plans for DSA move

As the Durham Board of Education moves forward with plans to build a new Durham School of the Arts in northern Durham, some community members are pushing back.

Design for the new DSA is underway, with the final design for the new school scheduled to  come before the board for approval Dec. 14 and construction slated to begin in the summer of 2024. Meanwhile, some parents and community members are urging school board members to go back to the drawing board and reconsider renovations at the current site.

At a Trinity Park Neighborhood Association meeting on Nov. 1, community members voiced their concerns about the rising construction costs, future land use and changes to school culture. 

“The more I learn, the more I think there is a reasonable, practical, reason for staying here,” said John Hodges-Copple, retired planning director for the Triangle J Council of Governments.

A 2021 consultant’s report recommended creating a new DSA campus as quicker and more practical than renovating, and suggested that building a new school would be no more costly than renovating. But since that 2021 report, the estimated price for constructing the new school has doubled from about $120 million to roughly $240 million, Fredrick Davis, DPS Senior Executive Director of Building Services, said during the neighborhood meeting.

That amounts to more than half the $423 million amount voters approved in a 2022 bond referendum. The referendum was to fund a series of school construction projects, including renovations or improvements at Durham School of the Arts and at Massenburg, Glenn, Holt, Bethesda, Club Boulevard, and Morehead elementary schools. 

During the neighborhood meeting, community members asked the board to consider renovating the school instead of relocating it, given the cost increases. “I don’t think it would be moving backwards to think of other options in light of doubled costs,” said Hodges-Copple. 

The neighborhood meeting came on the heels of a school board meeting on Oct. 26 where Brittney McGraw, DSA parent and treasurer of the school PTSA, voiced her concerns about the cancellation of a recent information meeting about the project for parents and community members. “We’ve not seen anything,” she said. “When is the transparency going to be really transparent?” 

The theme of transparency was echoed at the Trinity Park meeting. Community also emphasized the integral role of the current downtown location in the school’s culture and identity, while others expressed concerns about the impact of DSA project costs on the other schools awaiting improvements. 

“There’s an equity issue here,” said Leigh Bordley, a former Board of Education member. 

Others expressed fears about what the vacant plot of land would become. But Natalie Beyer, DPS Board of Education member, said the school system plans to use the plot for educational purposes. School system attorneys are currently drafting legal documents to control the approved uses of the land, she said. “We want a school…” Beyer said. “We think of it as educational first.” 

Davis said the DSA project has been discussed in several meetings, including meetings with DSA staff and with neighbors living near the new school site. The team will also share the design plans with interested community members, students, parents and staff at a meeting in the DSA Media Center on Nov. 15 at 5:30 p.m. 

Beyer said school system leaders are confident that the construction costs will rise even more if they wait longer. “I don’t think anybody is interested in going backwards,” she said.

Speaking before the meeting, Jacqueline Morgan, a 52-year Durham resident and former co-owner of Durham’s Morgan Imports, said her husband and grandkids attended the school. She highlighted the value of the current urban location, stating, “you’ve got a place where kids can walk…they can explore things.” 

After the meeting, Hodges-Copple said there needs to be more “authentic, meaningful engagement,” about the new DSA, especially in light of cost increases. 

“It’s not about just DSA. It’s about all those projects in the bond issue,” said Hodges-Copple. “The more funds that DSA is going to suck up, the less likely they can do the other projects, I believe, that they kind of promised to the voters that they were going to be able to do…You can’t spend the same dollar twice.” 

The new DSA campus construction is set to begin in the summer of 2024 and be done in 2026. 

Clarification: Jacqueline Morgan was a longtime owner of Morgan Imports along with her husband, Richard Morgan. The story has been updated to reflect that fact.

Audrey Patterson