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Facing rising costs, DPS may delay some school renovations

Eight Durham Public Schools construction projects were to be funded with money from the 2022 Durham County bond referendum. But due to increased construction costs, only four will likely be undertaken before the end of 2024, according to school officials. 

Construction of the new Murray-Massenburg Elementary School and design for a new Durham School of the Arts are underway, and renovations at Glenn Elementary will begin in early 2024. 

“Once we address DSA, Glenn, we are only going to have enough money to be able to tackle one more school, which is going to be Morehead,” DPS Superintendent Pascal Mubenga said at a Nov. 17 joint meeting of the county commissioners and the Durham School Board. He also predicted that the school system may fall seven to ten million dollars short on the Morehead Elementary renovation project.

The 2022 bond referendum included construction of a new Murray-Massenburg Elementary and Durham School of Arts and listed comprehensive renovation of six other schools. But the predicted costs of each project have increased significantly, leaving questions about how the school system will fund anticipated renovations at Holt Elementary, Bethesda Elementary, Club Boulevard, and Mangum Elementary School. 

Mubenga’s comments followed a presentation by Larry Johnson, chief operations officer with Durham Public Schools. Johnson described the increased costs of the planned school construction and renovation projects. He attributed the rise in construction and renovation costs to labor shortages, increase in material commodity prices, supply chain issues and the war in Ukraine. 

At the meeting, several community members voiced their opposition to the DSA plans, which call for building a new school several miles north of the existing campus. Construction of the new DSA is set to begin this summer. The speakers noted that constructing a new DSA will cost $240 million, more than half the amount voters approved in the 2022 referendum. 

“I believe also that a number of the stakeholders would view this idea of deferring the maintenance of the elementary schools as neglect of them,” said Trinity Park resident Julia Borbely-Brown. 

John Hodges-Copple also criticized the DSA plans.

“In short, there seems to be at least a 100 million dollar gap between the cost of those eight projects and the funds available to build them,” said Hodges-Copple, a retired planning director for the Triangle J Council of Governments. “We make decisions based on the information we have at the time. A hard thing for leaders to do is to pause and reconsider decisions when conditions change.” 

Johnson responded that renovation costs have also increased. A full renovation of DSA would likely cost more than $300 million, he said.

Mubenga said that it would take seven years to renovate the current DSA buildings if the students remained on site. 

“We got to a point where we have to really proceed with DSA,” he said. “If we don’t do it, we’re not going to have enough time to open in the 26 to 27 [school year].” 

Mubenga reiterated that the remaining money from the 2022 bond, after funding DSA and Murray-Massenburg, will be allocated to renovations at Glenn and Morehead elementary schools. Renovations at Glenn are set to begin in early 2024, and bidding on the Morehead renovations will open this spring.

“However as the market continues to change, we will also be re-evaluating those decisions,” said Fredrick Davis, senior executive director of building services for DPS, after the meeting. 

Above: Architects’ rendering of the new Murray-Massenburg Elementary School, courtesy of Evoke Studio.  


Audrey Patterson