In 2019, Durham voters overwhelmingly approved a $95 million affordable housing bond that was touted as the largest in the state’s history.
During this election cycle, Durham county residents will consider $550.24 million in education-related bond referenda that will, among other things, build new schools, expand its community college campus, and modernize the Museum of Life and Science.
The Durham County Board of Commissioners first approved resolutions in support of the bond referenda in July.
“Durham is growing, and we must support education,” Brenda Howerton, chair of the county’s board of commissioners, told the INDY this week.
Wendy Jacobs, the county’s cochair, told the INDY that the education bond is the first approved by the board since 2016, when the elected leaders put forth a $170 million bond for Durham Public Schools (DPS), including $91 million for the construction of a new Northern High School and existing school needs, along with improvements for Durham Technical Community College, the Durham Museum of Life and Science, and the county library system.
“That bond was approved by the voters,” Jacobs says of the 2016 referendum. “It is important for us to have safe, healthy, up-to-date schools for our children.”
The lion’s share of funding for the current bond referenda that voters will consider on November 8—$423.5 million— has been earmarked for remodeling DPS’s existing buildings and plant facilities, new schools, and land acquisition.
Jacobs says the funding will pay for the Murray-Massenburg Elementary School and a new Jordan High School.
Bettina Umstead, chair of the Durham County Board of Education, echoed the county commissioners: the proposed funding from the bond will provide educational resources that are needed to keep up with the county’s growing population.
“Durham County is certainly growing,” Umstead said in late September while appearing on the county’s online In Touch with Durham show.
“You can drive down the street and see there are new housing developments. There are new businesses coming into our community, and so we know with all that new housing development comes new families with children, and we want to make sure with Durham Public Schools that we have space to welcome them with open arms.”
Meanwhile, $112.74 million of the community college funding will support the construction of an 86,000-square-foot Allied Health Building to house simulation and classroom labs “to meet local requirements for nurses, medical assistants, nursing assistants, pharmacy technicians and other health professions,” according to a pamphlet that reached Durham residents’ mailboxes late last week.
The community college portion of the bond referenda also calls for the construction of a 36,000-square-foot Life Science Training Facility and Classroom Building, along with the additional land acquisition “to address future expansion,” according to the mailer from the county government’s administrative offices.
For Durham Tech, community college officials point to “major growth in the life sciences sector with 45 new companies and 7,000 new jobs announced in the last five years with 50 percent” of the activity in Durham.
On the community college’s website, officials note that the school is the only one in the state in close proximity to two care-lev- el hospitals—UNC and Duke Health—along with the Durham VA and long-term facilities. The school wants to respond to labor demand by making available a trained workforce in a regional health industry that’s “projected for double-digit growth in the years ahead,” according to the community college website.
“With booming career opportunities in these sectors, Durham Tech is well-positioned to prepare local residents for great jobs and provide a diverse workforce pipeline to area companies,” community college officials state.
“If we want Durham County residents to move into those jobs, we need the facilities and equipment they can train on to be prepared to move into these jobs,” Durham Tech president J.B. Buxton said in September on the county’s online show.
“These are good jobs with good wages and good career opportunities,” he added.
Another bond referendum would also allocate $13,995,000 to one of the city’s crown jewels, the Durham Museum of Life and Science, which first opened its doors in 1946. The relatively modest chunk of funding will modernize the facility’s learning spaces, where generations of school-age youngsters received their first meaningful exposure to science, from dinosaurs and weather to the random sounds of percussion instruments or chemistry sets from the gift shop.
In addition to “significant sustainability upgrades,” the proposed funding will support new exhibits at the museum that are “focused on climate change, technological innovation and health science,” along with improvements to the museum’s indoor and outdoor learning spaces, as well as renovations to its meeting room.
Museum officials note that the North Durham facility is a nonprofit that receives little funding and support from the state’s coffers.
Carrie Heinonen, the museum’s chief executive officer and president, in a press release credited the community’s support over the decades as being critical to the facility’s growth and expansion.
“We want our museum to continue inspiring the next generation of scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, innovators, and leaders right here in Durham,” Heinonen stated in a release posted in October on the museum’s website.
Indeed, the less than $14 million price tag to improve one of the city’s educational mainstays that’s devoted to science sounds like a bargain in a political atmosphere where climate change has been derided as a hoax and scientific inquiry has been diminished.
“Voters will have the chance to help Durham make a major commitment to education for all generations,” Kate Senner, the museum’s vice president for development, stated in a press release made public on October 20. “And at the same time, they can help create a greener, more sustainable museum that will offer a more welcoming experience to all visitors.”
The museum, Heinonen noted in September, has been an educational and cultural resource in the city for 75 years.
“We are an informal educational institution. We see ourselves working in parallel and in partnership with Durham Public Schools,” she said.
While speaking of the museum’s role in the city’s educational ecosystem, Heinonen encapsulated the vision driving all three elements of the bond referenda.
“We think of ourselves as building that pipeline of curious learners and curious workers who are going to be filling the pipeline for workers that we need to feed the industry that we are building here in North Carolina,” she said. “So that’s how we see ourselves: as part of that continuum in that community.”
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