When Student U, a “college-access organization” that provides summer and after-school programs, asked the Durham County Board of Commissioners in May to chip in no more than $5 million to help renovate the historic W. G. Pearson Middle School on East Umstead Street, commissioners verbally committed to the deal.

But on Monday, when the board was asked to make a decision, it declined to do so. Instead, commissioners looked to see what the county could gain from a public-private partnership. A partnership of that kind is not new—in fact, one was used to help renovate the Whitted School and transform that crumbling, historic school into a multigenerational facility that will house senior residences and classroom facilities for pre-kindergarten students.

Since June, Self-Help Credit Union has partnered with Student U on the renovations. While commissioners seemed to be in favor of the partnership, there were still critical questions they needed answers for: Who would upkeep the building? (Answer: Student U, which will own the building.) Where will classes be held during the construction? How will the financials work out?

The majority of students at Student U are African American (39 percent) and Latino (48.3 percent); the rest of the student body identifies as “biracial,” Student U executive director Alexandra Zagbayou said. All students live within Durham County.

Commissioner Wendy Jacobs said before she could make a decision on whether or not to approve the partnership, she needed more information.

“I’m really kind of comparing this to the process we went through with Whitted, where we had considerably more information and we had a process. Also, where there was a public hearing involved and opportunity for public input as well. Even though we did generally discuss this, we really have not had any information about this,” said Jacobs, adding she wanted to know the budget breakdowns as well as whether the county would be able to get some of its contributions back over time.

“If the county is making this substantial amount contribution, up to five million, I’m concerned about what happens after ten years,” she said. “I’d really like to have our staff look at that. I don’t think the county makes a five-million-dollar investment in something for a ten-year period.”

Commissioner Ellen Reckhow agreed that more information was needed on the expansion and renovation. She was also curious to know if there was an opportunity to use the building for a “joint-use facility” with other organizations that help youth.

“There needs to be a proviso about maximizing the utilization for the community and the benefit for the youth in Durham as a whole,” Reckhow said. “Because when public money goes in, it shouldn’t just be benefiting Student U, it should be benefiting possibly all the children in the community who don’t even go to Student U and other groups that serve the community.”
County manager Wendell Davis explained that the renovation was “another critical piece of work” that has to happen in the county, along with the My Brother’s Keeper initiative.

“I remind you again, at a very high level, we’ve been fortunate to see much of the renaissance that in fact has occurred downtown to go across the other side of 147 now,” he said. “There is a number of discussions, quite frankly, that are going on around the entire Fayetteville Street corridor. So what I would like for us to do, not just think about the important educational outcomes that we get as a result of the good work Student U does, but also how it contributes, quite frankly, to the entire built environment and the things we desire.”

W.G. Pearson is a historic school built in 1928 that educated many of Durham’s African-American residents. It was named after Hayti businessman and former Hillside High School principal W.G. Pearson. He was influential in recruiting college grads to come teach in Durham’s African-American schools during segregation.

The county commissioners will vote on the partnership on Monday, November 14, at its 7 p.m. meeting.