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Residents urge school board to reconsider DSA move

Durham residents urged the Board of Education to pause before moving forward with the construction of a new campus for Durham School of the Arts at an hours-long meeting Thursday evening. 

Twelve past and present DSA students, parents and neighbors of both the current campus and the proposed campus in North Durham spoke before the board with passion. Some were concerned that construction costs would take money away from much-needed renovation projects at other Durham schools. Others said a move from the school’s current downtown campus would inconvenience DSA families and cause traffic problems in the new location. 

Motivated for different reasons, the dissenters united around a singular message: the board should “pause, assess and engage.” 

In November 2022, voters supported a bond referendum that awarded $423.5 million to Durham schools for renovation and construction projects. At the time, DPS leaders said they would prioritize constructing new campuses for Durham School of the Arts and Murray-Messenburg Elementary and fully renovating six other schools across the Bull City. 

But a year later, district officials said the bond money was no longer enough to cover all eight projects, citing rising construction costs. In a November 2023 school board meeting, then-Superintendent Pascal Mubenga recommended prioritizing just four projects: renovations at Glenn and Morehead Montessori elementaries and construction of two new schools, Mussay-Massenburg Elementary and a new DSA. 

DSA’s current campus, which includes buildings over 100 years old, is located downtown between Duke and Gregson Streets. Fred Davis, the district’s director of building services, said renovating the historic campus would cost around $371 million

In December 2023, the board approved plans for a new $240 million campus in North Durham, despite pushback about the cost — the price tag was nearly double an earlier estimation of $120 million. 

Set to open in 2026, renderings of the campus feature outdoor spaces, classrooms for arts programming and increased capacity. Board member Jovonia Lewis praised the plans: “Looking at the pictures, it looks like a college campus,” she said. 

But some students, parents and neighbors are not happy. At Thursday’s meeting, talk of the school’s move dominated public comment. 

Dara Baldwin, a DSA alum and current mentor to students, said the school’s downtown location gives students a sense of independence and community. She noted that many students commute by foot, bike or public transportation, and some have after-school jobs nearby. 

“It seems like a waste to build a new building instead of repairing the old one,” she said. “There is a lot of history in the building, both good and bad, but I think new students and new community coming in and sharing those spaces would improve Durham as it is downtown.” 

Anne Zerrilla, a retired DPS educator, lives near the site of the new campus in Duke Homestead Heights. She said increased traffic from the school would negatively impact the surrounding neighborhood, where narrow, potholed roads are common. 

“It doesn’t make sense to build this humongous school in a neighborhood that doesn’t support the infrastructure,” she said in an agitated tone. 

Others were concerned that the construction would take money away from renovation projects at other schools. 

Though the 2022 bond was intended to fund eight school projects, renovations are now on hold at four of those schools: Holt, Bethesda, Club Boulevard and Mangum elementaries. 

Parents of students at Club Boulevard Elementary and Morehead Montessori Elementary listed a host of long-deferred maintenance issues at their children’s schools. A lack of working toilets, faulty HVAC systems, broken classroom technology, and more limit their children’s education, they said. 

“This is unacceptable,” said Theresa Dowell Blackinton, the mother of two Club Boulevard students. “We’re asking that our students’ basic needs be met — that they have a safe, functioning building where they can learn.” 

Others connected the DSA issue to recent payroll chaos for classified employees at DPS schools. 

Sarah Ball-Damberg is the parent of two DSA alums, one of whom now works as a DPS classified worker whose salary has dropped by about $12,000 since January 2024. 

“Building a new DSA on a new site may have seemed like the right call based on information you had when this first came up, but, of course, a lot has changed since then,” she told the board. She noted shifts in the district’s finances and increased costs for construction since the board first greenlit plans for a new DSA.

“Our trust has also changed,” she said, referencing the chaos surrounding classified-worker pay. 

“What if you could do something to potentially ease the financial troubles, and also build back the public trust?” she said. “Please pause, assess and engage.” 

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified a speaker at the meeting. The story has been updated to correct the error. 

Above: Photo of Durham School of the Arts by Maddie Wray — The 9th Street Journal