‘Our buildings are falling apart’: Durham school leaders criticize county as HVAC breaks

Charlie Innis
·7 min read

Joseph Walker could see how excited his students felt about returning to music classes April 8.

“You can’t teach orchestra very well through a screen,” said Walker, a violist who teaches string fundamentals and string ensemble courses at Durham School of the Arts.

His students’ return to in-person instruction ended abruptly after class the next day. The magnet school’s chiller failed beyond repair April 9, sending DSA students back home for at least four weeks.

“Some of the students that were really excited to return in person hadn’t been doing so well in remote learning, but they sort of had this, like, new energy about going back in person,” Walker said. “And that energy is gone since we’ve returned to fully remote.”

Walker was disheartened.

“Everyone who teaches at DSA knew that was going to happen because the chiller breaks multiple times per year,” he said.

The school board voted at an emergency meeting last week to replace the chiller, for $326,140, by May 7, a Durham Public Schools spokesperson told The News & Observer.

But years of patching leaky roofs and replacing old air conditioning are piling up, school board members say. Heating, venting and air circulation systems are getting pushed to their limits, operating longer than usual to circulate fresh air during the pandemic.

COVID-19 is testing an infrastructure that some school board members say is crumbling under Durham County’s watch.

“Deferred needs is a very, very serious list of items that we have, that we keep getting cut every time we ask for something,” Vice-chair Mike Lee said about county funding for public schools. “Every time we ask for something and when our budget gets cut, things that get cut or deferred goes on that list.”

“The chillers in our buildings are part of that, and that directly affects the health and wellness of our staff and our students,” Lee added.

Parkwood Elementary also switched to remote learning last week because of a malfunctioning chiller. The district had already planned to upgrade Parkwood’s HVAC system and aims to finish the work by May 3, DPS spokesperson Casey Watson said.

‘Begging’ Durham County for funding

Lee recalled telling County Manager Wendell Davis and the county commissioners in 2019 that the county’s triple-A bond rating was “on the backs” of public schools kids.

“What does it matter to have a fund balance so full, a triple-A bond rating, when your buildings are falling apart? I was ridiculed for that afterwards, you know, on social media,” he said at Wednesday’s emergency school board meeting. “But that’s what we have here.”

In North Carolina, counties cover public school systems’ capital costs, including building, equipping and maintaining schools, while the state pays for operations and teacher salaries.

In 2019, the Durham school board asked the county manager and commissioners for $6 million to pay for wear-and-tear maintenance like window, air conditioning and carpet repairs, but the county gave the district $1.37 million.

Last year, the county provided $3.37 million after being asked again for $6 million. The district stretches that amount across 53 schools and five administrative buildings, totaling 6 million square feet of space, budget director Alex Modestou said.

School board member Natalie Beyer said the county has underfunded the district’s maintenance and construction needs for years.

“It literally is what the county is responsible for,” she said in an interview with The N&O. “We don’t have anywhere else to go.”

In 2016, DPS estimated it needed $435 million to renovate or replace its aging schools for the next decade.

That year, the school board narrowed its funding priorities from $435 million to $186 million, aiming to put the amount on a bond referendum for the 2016 general election ballot.

County leaders proposed a $90 million bond. The school board tried unsuccessfully to negotiate for a $110 million bond when Heidi Carter was the board chair, before her days as a county commissioner.

Over half of the $90 million bond, which was approved, covers the new Northern High School’s construction. But the cost has since grown from around $52 million to over $92 million. The bond also provided over $3 million to upgrade HVAC systems for elementary schools, including Parkwood’s.

In the last decade, Beyer watched Durham County build new facilities downtown, like the Justice Center and the Health and Human Services building, she said.

“Here we sit, begging to make sure that our children have adequate facilities,” she said. “Facilities that are nowhere near as new as the county facilities.”

County Manager Wendell Davis had not responded to requests for comment for this story by 5 p.m. Wednesday.

Is your school’s HVAC system acting up?

The district is watching 15 more schools’ HVAC systems, said Travis T. Anderson, executive director of facilities services.

“There isn’t a pressing concern at the moment. We are proactively monitoring and performing preventative maintenance in an effort to keep the systems running,” Watson told The N&O.

The 15 schools are:

Brogden Middle School

Club Boulevard Elementary School

Creekside Elementary School

E.K. Powe Elementary School

Fayetteville Street Elementary School

George Watts Elementary School

Sherwood Githens Middle School

Hillside High School

Holt Elementary School

Hope Valley Elementary School

Jordan High School

Lakewood Elementary School

Northern High School

Oak Grove Elementary School

Pearsontown Elementary School

Three more schools have already completed repairs after HVAC systems malfunctioned. Those schools are Lakewood Montessori Middle School, Neal Magnet Middle School, and Shepard Magnet Middle School.

Emergency funding sources

The district keeps a savings account of about $5.4 million annually to cover unexpected capital costs, like replacing a failed chiller. But the reserve is intended for crisis situations, like tornado damage or flooding, Modestou said.

DPS maintains another reserve for unassigned expenses of about $6.6 million, but the district saves it to pay employees and keep schools running during emergencies. When schools stopped receiving lunch revenue during the pandemic, for example, they tapped into the reserve to pay nutritional staff wages, he said.

The $6.6 million covers two weeks worth of the district’s overall expenses, about half of what auditors typically recommend for savings. “It’s not a very large portion,” Modestou said.

But federal relief could be on the way. North Carolina schools will receive $3.6 billion from the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, which may include funding to upgrade air ventilation systems, according to EducationNC. It’s not yet clear ow much money DPS could receive from the stimulus package.

Long-term construction plans

The district worked with county commissioners to adopt a 10-year plan for long-term construction and renovations last June, costing over $581 million, including the 2016 bond.

The plan includes about $20 million for middle and high school buildings, Chief Operating Officer Julius Monk said. It also covers a major renovation for Durham School of the Arts now underway.

But it may not be enough to pay for all of the district’s needs. DPS’s latest assessment, in 2019, found it needs $727 million in construction and renovation work, The N&O reported.

Commissioners Chair Brenda Howerton also did not respond to requests for comment about school needs by 5 p.m. Wednesday

Wendy Jacobs, the county board’s vice chair, said she understands Lee and Beyer’s frustration.

“We made progress with this capital improvement plan,” Jacobs said. “I support it being a priority in our budget. And if we have a crisis now, then we have to address it. I mean, it’s similar to what happened with McDougald Terrace, right?”

The Durham Housing Authority evacuated hundreds of residents from the McDougald Terrace public housing community because of carbon monoxide leaks in early 2020, The N&O reported.

“We knew that the federal government was neglecting funding for public housing, right? And we have a situation where the state is neglecting support for our schools,” Jacobs said. “So it is incumbent on us at the local level to take care of it.”