DPD's Gunter named officer of the year, probably still wants more Lerts

The Durham Police Department has had, shall we say, not the easiest of times in recent years, coming under scrutiny and criticism on everything from an in-custody death, to whether enforcement is racially unbalanced, to the controversy over a new headquarters on East Main Street.

GunterYet it's hard to think of a Durham P.D. officer who is better beloved in many quarters of the community than District 2's Sgt. Dale Gunter.

Gunter -- who was recently named the force's officer of the year -- heads up his district's HEAT (high enforcement abatement team), which targets crime hot-spots and problem areas.  But he's better known to District 2 neighborhoods as DPD's friendly listserv representative, responding to "hey Sgt. Gunter" questions that pop up from time to time.

In the days since Gunter's award was announced, I've seen neighbors from all political stripes -- including some who've been very critical of the D.P.D. in recent years -- hurry forward to congratulate the popular sergeant on the award.

Sgt. Gunter always closes his emails reminding folks to "Be Alert... the world needs more Lerts!" Based on the community response to his award, we might turn this around and say, police departments need more Gunters.

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Shaking off the cobwebs -- is this mic still on?

Everything dies, baby that's a fact.
But maybe everything that dies someday comes back.
                            - Bruce Springsteen

OK, sure, The Boss is better associated with New Jersey than Durham. But aren't all those wisecracks about Duke being the University of New Jersey at Durham enough to make him at least an honorary member? (To say nothing of the fact that his daughter apparently went to college at Duke.)

Still, it's been a while. I've been spending a few days on this blog thingee, see, dusting off the cobwebs. If you came here for "authentic china nike jersey" or "louboutin sneakers" deals, sorry, the spam comments are all gone. (Oh, BCR also doesn't suck to read on a cell phone these days.) But hopefully you'll start to see a few things that look familiar.

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What's up with few new posts at BCR?

I've avoided posting any sort of update on where things stand with new content at Bull City Rising, largely because readers have been very indulgent with recent-past warnings that things were busy in the Real World and that content would be less frequent. 

But after some comments here, and particularly some kind personal emails checking in to see if everything was okay, I wanted to post a quick update here.

I've long railed for the need for high-quality, financially sustainable local journalism in communities, and a big part of the reason for that is that no individual blogger can ever hope to keep up with all the news even in the best of circumstances. And when the circumstances aren't the best, well, then there's a real pinch.

So what's been going on of late? Some of the time-management challenges have been local. This spring, my wife Darlene and I finished renovating a house on Gloria Ave., a full-on reboot of a historic house that needed more than a little TLC. And in the months that have followed, I've taken on some additional responsibilities at the day job, which have made for interesting new challenges, though again, less time.

Several of you have written in to ask about the other challenge on the schedule -- a family illness I've alluded to from time to time here on the site, and in more detail to friends and colleagues around town.

My mother continues to battle an end-stage respiratory disease, against which she's put up a brave fight for the past year. In recent months, her condition has, well, worsened, and as of yesterday she's into her third hospitalization in a month.

As a result, I'm traveling out of state just about every weekend checking in on her and trying to maximize my time with her while I can. And that, combined with busier weeks, has squeezed much of the blogging time out of my life for now.

The next few months promise to bring more of the same -- though Matthew Milliken is back in town and working on some interesting stories for the site in the coming weeks.

I wish I could promise a date when I knew the usual ripostes, repartee and reporting would be back. Right now, I can't. But watch this space -- as with so many other things in life, we don't always know just when things will change.

Thanks, as always, for reading BCR.

Civitas investigation alleges conflict of interest, open meeting law violation in DSS change

I'll be the first to admit my preternatural wariness about the work of Civitas, the conservative think tank that's part of a sprawling consortium of organizations funded largely by Art Pope and responsible for the reddening of state government and in part for increased appearances by the likes of "Americans for Prosperity" here in our state.

But we have damn too little investigative reporting happening around here, so credit goes where credit's due to Civitas' Andrew Henson for his story Tuesday about the termination of Durham County Social Services chief Gerri Robinson.

As we noted here in our bon voyage to Robinson a couple of weeks back, the DSS chair came to the Bull City's host county after a rocky tenure in Nashville, Tennessee, and hit headwinds early in her term over a controversial child care subsidy idea -- one which was said to have hastened the departure of at least one local non-profit leader involved in early childhood support.

But as commenters here noted at the time, there was a little grey-cloud asterisk hanging over the firing -- namely, the timing. The personnel change came simultaneously with the selection of one County Commissioner Joe Bowser as vice-chair of the DSS board, and with newly-appointed DSS board member Gail Perry getting called up to lead the agency at her very first meeting.

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Durham City Council won’t act on 751 South until pending lawsuits end

The Durham City Council decided early this afternoon to defer a possible utility extension to the controversial proposed 751 South development

The council voted to wait until current lawsuits about the Southern Durham project come to a close, which staff estimated could take anywhere from 18 months to three years. The council was motivated at least in part by fear of becoming entangled in litigation itself. 

“It’s clear to me that moving ahead now before the litigation is resolved does raise expectations and anxiety,” council member Mike Woodard said at a special meeting on the subject that was held today.

“I think there’s just way too many questions about this with confusing and uncertain answers about constitutional issues,” he added. “That’s always a red flag for me.” 

“I just don’t understand why we would move forward,” council member Diane Catotti said. “I don’t see the advantage to the city.” 

The decision against extending utilities makes it unclear when Southern Durham Development might be able to start building 751 South, a high-density project that could include 200 residential units, 125,000 square feet of shops and 25,000 square feet of offices by the three-year mark. The project can’t be built to that scale without water and sewer service, and the city of Durham is the entity most likely to provide it. 

A group of Durham residents have sued the county over its controversial decision to rezone the 751 South property. The new zoning permits dense development. 

Opponents of the project say that the property is so close to Jordan Lake that its high-density facilities will harm water quality thanks to unfiltered stormwater runoff. 

Southern Durham Development and its allies, however, assert that the project can be built in such a way that the lake is protected. They also tout the development as being a potential source of 3,000 new jobs

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

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North Durham minimum-security prison to close; future of site unknown

Durhamcorrectional One little-heard provision in this General Assembly's session work: the closure of a number of minimum-security correctional facilities throughout the state as part of a cost-cutting move that could shave almost $11 million from the state's spending line this year.

Among the four facilities impacted, per the N&O: the Durham Correctional Center, a facility that houses more than 200 inmates and which sits just to the northeast of the Horton Rd./Guess Rd. intersection in North Durham, right near a few shopping plazas and backing up to the popular West Point on the Eno city park.

With its October closure, it turns out a small piece of Durham County history will come to an end:

In 1925, Durham County built a prison for $95,000 to house 150 inmates. Constructed of brick and surrounded by a heavy wire stockade, the three-story structure was noted as being the best planned prison of its kind in the state. On the first floor was dormitory space for inmates, as well as a dining hall. The second and third floors provided space for offices and staff. The building was heated by steam and showers were in the basement.

Durham was one of 51 county prisons for which the state assumed responsibility with the passage of the Conner bill in 1931. It was one of 61 field unit prisons renovated or built during the late 1930's to house inmates who worked building roads.

No word on what the future of the site is, i.e., whether the state will hold on to this little chunk of land or sell it off for development. In the latter case, even with the current downturn in residential and commercial development, one wouldn't doubt that there might be people lining up to buy it.

Rare, after all, is the prison facility that's zoned for some of the better schools in any community's school district.

BCR's question: if someone did redevelop the site, would they keep the name Prison Camp Road? We're just saying.

Durham, get your geek on -- Forbes calls us one of the five nerdiest American cities

Nerds Once upon a time, being called nerdy or geeky? Most definitely not cool. 

Back in the 80s, all the cool kids were looking to work on Wall Street or in D.C., where the corridors of power did not admit the pocket-protector set.

But with the Internet, mobile technology and the rise of tablets, apps and all manner of things technological, the nerdly are back. The revenge, one might say, of the nerds.

And a recent Forbes blog post highlights Durham as being among the most geeky of all geeky cities, noting a National Science Foundation's ranking of our MSA as fifth-highest in the US for the percentage of workers in science and engineering-oriented occupations.

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Report: Robinson "terminated" at Durham DSS, less than two years after appointment

From the That-Was-Quick Department: Two separate sources have told BCR that Durham County's social services director Gerri Robinson was axed Wednesday by the department's oversight board.

Chalk this one up as officially unconfirmed at this time, as the County's public information office isn't currently in a position to offer confirmation or more information -- but from what we're hearing at BCR, this one is a done deal.

The DSS Board -- which, as the Herald-Sun points out this morning, picked up a new chair in Stan Holt, vice-chair in BOCC'er Joe Bowser, and a new board member in Gail Perry, all through an organizational meeting -- reportedly terminated Robinson's employment for unspecified reasons.

Intriguingly, Perry, who herself is a guidance counselor at Durham's Lakeview alternative school, is poised to assume the directorship on an interim basis as of Aug. 8, with Jovetta Whitfield serving in the position in the interim, according to an email from Holt.

That email went on to add:

This has not been an easy process and I know this will create some uncertainty in the agency. However, rest assured that we will now move quickly to find a new Director for the Durham County Department of Social Services.

We've noticed a seeming uptick in closed-door DSS board meetings of late, which can be an indication of personnel intrigue (though at least one recent meeting purported to be over a matter involving a juvenile, which is a closed-records matter in most non-criminal cases.)

That included two meetings this spring (April 4 and April 12) described as falling under the rubric of N.C.G.S. 143-318.11(a)(6), a section of the general statutes that encompasses contemplation of "the qualifications, competence, performance, character, fitness, conditions of appointment, or conditions of initial employment of an individual public officer or employee or prospective public officer or employee; or to hear or investigate a complaint, charge, or grievance by or against an individual public officer or employee[.]"  Though of course, we don't know whether those meetings were in reference to Robinson or other staff at the agency.

Still, DSS' Robinson -- who only arrived in Durham in fall of 2009 -- is no stranger to moving along, or being moved along, from positions.

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A bit of shine comes off Durham public school test data

Durham public school system officials released some negative but expected student test results on Thursday. They also backed away from a key achievement claim that they had made when announcing test scores on Wednesday. 

Preliminary results under a federal school assessment program showed that only seven Durham Public Schools met the federal government’s adequate yearly progress standard. 

These results, released Thursday for the recently concluded 2010-11 academic year, were down from 2009-10, when 14 of the district’s schools made AYP. 

That kind of dip wasn’t confined to Durham, though. The News & Observer reported Thursday that just 22 of the Wake school district’s 163 schools made adequate yearly progress. Last year, by comparison, 61 of 159 schools made progress under the standard. 

Why the drops? It’s certainly not that the students, teachers and schools in North Carolina, or in either of these two districts, got markedly poorer between 2009-10 and the school year that just ended. 

Instead, the major factor is probably something that made these kinds of results entirely foreseeable. The goals rose, and by significant margins. 

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UPDATED: Graduation rate, test scores rise for Durham Public Schools

Author’s note: This post was updated late on Wednesday, July 20. 

Test scores by Durham Public Schools students rose slightly in the 2010-11 academic year. 

“We believe that these are some significant accomplishments in Durham Public Schools,” said Eric Becoats, the district superintendent, who recently completed his first year in office. 

The results, which will be considered preliminary until next month, were announced Wednesday morning at Spring Valley Elementary School by school system officials. 

Perhaps the best news the Durham school system had involved the graduation rate, which rose from 69.8 percent to 73.9 percent. 

While the graduation rate hike is certainly laudable, the overall increases in student passing rates — performance composites, in educational lingo — were incremental at best. 

In grades 3 through 8, the percentage of students passing the state-mandated end-of-grade or EOG tests rose from 63.7 percent in 2009-10 to 64.1 percent in 2010-11. In high school, the percentage of students passing state-mandated end-of-course or EOC tests rose from 67.6 percent to 67.8 percent. 

Each increase was less than half a percentage point. 

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