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Leaking roofs, broken HVAC: Parents decry conditions at Durham elementary schools

When Theresa Dowell Blackinton enrolled her kindergartener at Club Boulevard Elementary, she worried about the maintenance of the school’s nearly 75-year-old campus. School administration assured her that renovations would begin within the year, she said.

“I wasn’t looking for anything cosmetic. I just wanted the school to be functional,” she said.

Next year, Dowell Blackinton’s daughter will graduate from Club Boulevard. It’s been five years, and HVAC fixes, electrical repairs and other renovations still aren’t complete.

Dowell Blackinton says the plumbing in the bathrooms is constantly broken, and water pressure in the school water fountains is so low that students can’t fill water bottles. “If they forget their bottles, they’re out of luck,” she said.

But these are hardly Dowell Blackinton’s biggest concerns.  

“My daughter in fourth grade, her classroom was never under 80 degrees this entire school year,” she said. “They’d invite parents in for a school activity and it was unbearable.” To cool down classrooms, Dowell Blackinton said the school installed box fans, but the fans were so loud that teachers began teaching into microphones and speakers.

“They can’t learn if they’re so hot and uncomfortable,” she said. “You’ve just got your hierarchy of basic needs. If you’re not meeting those bottom-level needs, you can’t expect kids to perform at their best.”

Club Boulevard Elementary is not the only Durham school awaiting overdue renovations. Parents at aging elementary schools across the district are growing frustrated with a lack of maintenance. 

And at some schools, inspections have found evidence of mold, and parents worry that the district is moving too slowly to eliminate it.


In 2022, Durham voters approved a $423.5 million bond referendum for construction and renovations of Durham Public Schools (DPS).

That money was supposed to cover construction and renovation at eight Durham schools. However, the construction of two new public schools proved far more expensive than originally planned. The district spent nearly $91 million to build Murray-Massenburg Elementary School. The budget for construction of a new Durham School of the Arts campus, meanwhile, has nearly doubled, to $241 million.

As a result, renovations at four Durham elementary schools — Club Elementary, Morehead Elementary, Bethesda Elementary, and Mangum Elementary — have been postponed. Meanwhile, the timeline is uncler for renovating other aging Durham elementary schools that are listed on the district’s 10-year Capital Improvement Plan.

Bettina Umstead, chair of the Board of Education, said the new campuses are necessary to address overcrowding. Murray-Massenburg has won various awards, and Fredrick Davis, the school system’s senior executive director of building services, has called the campus “the Cadillac of schools.” 

But parents at some of the district’s aging elementaries say their schools have been abandoned.

Lauren Sartain, the mother of two students at E.K. Powe Elementary School, says their school has been dealing with roof leaks, dilapidated outdoor equipment, and broken air conditioning. Powe is included on the district’s 10-year Capital Improvement Plan, but the district has not shared a timeline for renovation.

Last April, Sartain’s son tripped on the school’s torn-up astroturf and knocked out his two front teeth. When the accident happened, Sartain says she had been asking for playground repairs for five years, and had been assured that renovations were forthcoming. “When you have 60 first graders on the small playground with torn-up turf, it’s a safety issue,” Sartain said. 

She has contacted school board members multiple times and spoken at board meetings, but she feels her activism has fallen on deaf ears.

In a March 7 DPS work session, Davis delivered a status report on recent renovations. Afterwards, board member Jessica Carda-Auten had a question.

“What are the implications of not completing the renovations in the next few years to the deferred schools?” she said. “Are we looking at unsafe or inadequate learning conditions?”

“Our maintenance and facilities department has done an excellent job of maintaining buildings that have fully exceeded their life expectancy,” Davis replied.

But Sartain questions Davis’ claim. “It seems like they will tell people what they want to hear, but then nothing ever ends up happening,” Sartain said. “It’s gotten exhausting, like we’re screaming into a void.” 

“We’re not patching the roof. We’re not fixing the HVAC. we’re not doing this basic day-to-day stuff,” she said.

Umstead, the school board chair, acknowledges that parents are upset. “I know there’s been a lot of frustration around building conditions, and we are working really diligently on those issues,” she said.

Umstead says the issue boils down to underfunding.

“We’ve tried to make the most of the capital dollars we’ve received from the county,” she said. “Durham Public Schools is working to do our best, and we know we don’t have enough to manage every single building in the way we probably should.”


It’s not just playgrounds and broken water fountains that worry parents — at E.K. Powe, parents fear that leaks and high temperatures are contributing to mold growth. Mold is exacerbated by high temperatures, elevated humidity, and water leaks. Sartain said water is constantly leaking into Powe classrooms. 

“Leaking is a kind way to describe it,” she said. “The custodial staff has to go in multiple times a day to mop the classrooms.” 

According to Sartain, the HVAC system at E.K. Powe has been broken for nearly a month and temperatures in many classrooms have neared 90 degrees. 

She said she was told that the system will only be repaired in classrooms where students are taking end-of-grade tests.

A limited mold assessment at Powe in July 2023 conducted by S&ME, an engineering consulting firm, observed water damage on the ceiling, bubbling paint, and visible water intrusion. The report found trace amounts of mold with “allergenic potential” and “mycotoxin potential” in hallways and classrooms, findings the report called “significant.”

The report recommended that Powe remove discolored tiles, repair the leaking roof, and have a qualified mold remediation contractor remove drywall in various classrooms. 

The Durham County Department of Public Health also conducted an annual inspection at the school in October 2023 that found water damage and roof leaks. The department, however, has little enforcement authority and does not issue fines or penalties.

“All we do is take this report, and we send it to the school principal,” said Laura Lerch, the general inspections supervisor. “Then it’s in their hands to work with the school system to get these repairs.” 

E.K. Powe administration did not respond to requests for comment. Parents report that the roof is still leaking.

Chris Heavener, the parent of a first grader and a rising kindergartener at E.K. Powe, contacted DPS board members and the Durham County Board of Commissioners with concerns, requesting a mold remediation plan and timeline.

“I’m requesting that you address this urgent issue,” he wrote in an email. “The wellbeing of our children and staff necessitates transparency.”

He said he received no reply.

Anna Simmonds, mother of a second grader at E.K. Powe, is also worried about mold and says that her daughter’s pre-existing health conditions have been worsened by building conditions. She has contacted the school principal, the PTA, the Durham County Department of Public Health, the DPS interim superintendent, the Board of Education, and the Durham County Board of Commissioners, requesting an in-depth investigation and remediation plan.

“They keep saying ‘We have quotes,’ but when are you going to do it?” Simmonds said. “I’m a taxpayer. I’m a voter, and I want a timeline and a full investigation. All kids and educators and everyone in that building should be able to go into a healthy environment.”

Simmonds and Sartain feel that the burden of advocacy has fallen into their hands, but most parents have busy schedules and little time to spare. “Teachers and other parents don’t have the bandwidth to do this, and honestly, none of us should have to do this,” Sartain said.

In a statement, Clifton Williams, facilities and operations director, and Fredrick Davis, senior executive director of building services, said the school district monitors school air quality and is working to improve it.

Over the last two years, the district has spent more than $15 million dollars on IAQ (Indoor Air Quality) improvements,” the statement says. “Our efforts will continue to help reduce sick days, remove mold risk, mitigate asthma and allergy triggers, reduce energy costs, and even improve test scores.”

Meanwhile, Heavener worries about the example of the Alamance-Burlington school district, where last August, mold was discovered in at least 30 of 36 schools. Toxigenic mold was found in 16 of these schools, which inspectors say was a result of invasive water damage over time. Alamance-Burlington was forced to delay their schools’ start date by two weeks and spent $25 million to remediate buildings, triggering a budget crisis.

This is years and years of underfunding for certain projects,” Les Atkins, the former public information officer for the Alamance-Burlington school district, said in an interview. “What we found was that some small things that maybe had been left unattended to were big things…That little bit of water intrusion that we were alerted to at some point…now it’s turned into toxigenic mold behind the wall.”


At DPS board meetings, parents have repeatedly spoken about their run-down elementary schools. 

The school board recently approved hiring a consulting firm, Turner & Townsend Heery, to assess building deficiencies. The $1.7 million contract includes $540,769 in community engagement workshops.

In a joint meeting with DPS and Durham County Board of Commissioners on March 14, Fredrick Davis also described a school system subcommittee that recommends how to allocate renovation funds. When asked if parents are included in the advisory committee, Davis replied no.

“I’m inundated with parents that say ‘My school next, my school next.’ We’re trying to make sure that we’re equitable and equal,” he said.

To Lauren Sartain, this comment was “a slap in the face.” 

“I’m not asking for nice things or a new building, I’m just asking not to have water pouring into classrooms,” she said.

Theresa Dowell Blackinton agrees. She said she’s not looking for extra bells and whistles.

 “I just want my kid to fill a water bottle and have a bathroom and a classroom at a reasonable temperature.”

“You see in the paper the new opening of Murray-Massenburg and all these schools that are just beautiful,” she said. “I wish every school could be like that.”

“It’s hard to swallow, especially because the district’s favorite word is ‘equity,’” she said. “And that seems highly inequitable.” 

Statement from Clifton Williams, facilities and operations director, and Fredrick Davis, senior executive director of building services:
Durham Public Schools continues to monitor indoor air quality in schools and have added CO2 sensors in facilities for further monitoring. We are also using ESSER funding to improve HVAC systems districtwide. We have a process in place that will alert our DPS (Durham Public Schools) Building Services team when negative indoor air quality is present, and we consistently deploy testing and mitigation services. In a 2019 Facility Conditions Assessment, it was determined that DPS had more than $700 million mechanical needs. Over the last two years, the district has spent more than $15 million dollars on IAQ (Indoor Air Quality) improvements. Our efforts will continue to help reduce sick days, remove mold risk, mitigate asthma and allergy triggers, reduce energy costs, and even improve test scores. Additionally, DPS will undergo a new 2024 Facility Conditions assessment that will determine our priorities in indoor air quality and other capital improvements.

Above: Parent Theresa Dowell Blackinton says she has been waiting years for basic renovations at Club Boulevard Elementary. Photo by Abigail Bromberger — The 9th Street Journal

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story included an incorrect budget figure for Murray-Massenburg Elementary . The story has been updated to correct the error.