Walking in to Forest View Elementary last night, one might have thought one was entering, say, a Honda and Volvo owner's convention; and from the peaceful, often-aged faces inside, perhaps a Duke Nicholas School seminar on the economics of water rights.
Instead, it was a group girding for battle against a range of potential opponents.
First and foremost: Durham Public Schools, against which the one hundred and fifty or so Durhamites* (see end of article) present at the meeting were preparing to do battle. The crowd seemed universally opposed to a school in the bucolic forested lands west of 15-501, raising arguments from traffic impact to the encouragement of sprawl to traffic to -- wait for it -- runoff heading toward Jordan Lake.
But Duke also sized up as a possible opponent, with a significant portion of the meeting devoted to scuttlebutt as to why the university was -- according to organizers -- considering selling a portion of Duke Forest to the local school system for a high school.
Even a former DPS school board chair, Katherine Myers, raised her opposition to the site, calling out bluntly the one elephant in the room no one else wanted to: issues of school reassignment, and about why some schools are more popular than others.
Bottom line, she noted: schools like Jordan and Riverside are big because they're good, and they're good because they're big -- and they may need to get bigger.
"The fact of the matter is, if you add up all the capacity at all the traditional high schools in Durham County, and add up the current enrollment, the schools are underutilized," Myers said. "But we know nobody is going to be reassigned to Hillside and to Southern, two of the lowest-performing high schools in the entire state."
"And so we have to build... old school thought is, we build a brand new school, and we harvest kids out of Jordan and Riverside, the same way we harvested kids out of Northern and Jordan twentysome years ago. And we know how difficult that was. We know what happened," Myers continued.
Among the newsworthy points raised by organizer Elizabeth Vigdor at Tuesday's meeting was the assertion that Duke felt pressure from school officials over a threatened use of eminent domain if the school was unwilling to sell the Erwin/Cornwallis parcel, which is part of Duke Forest.
Vigdor said it was her understanding that Duke executive VP Tallman Trask III offered the district a piece of land north of Costco off Duke Homestead Rd., but that DPS expressed concern that the site was one mile too far easterly for the new high school.
According to Myers' brief but passionate statement, though, that might be an insurmountable issue for a district purporting to relieve putative pressure at Jordan and Riverside even as it runs undercapacity at largely-minority, poorer schools like Hillside and Southern.
Yet a number of residents at the meeting raised concerns over the proposed site as being -- much as with the proposal for new middle schools on Snow Hill Rd. in north Durham, or Scott King Rd. in south Durham -- too peripheral, far from the current urban population and closer to our neighboring counties.
Furthermore, Vigdor pointed out that the DCHCMPO's projections for population growth show the heaviest gains in new residents in Durham Co. over the next 25 years as being concentrated in eastern and southeastern Durham County, as opposed to forested and heavily-protected Duke Forest.
The neighborhood meeting ran well north of an hour, with residents raising a slew of issues, including whether the provisioning of water/sewer for the project would increase development; impact on traffic from school buses, pick up/drop off trips, and as many as 500 cars parked on site; a desire to protect the area in accordance with the New Hop Corridor open space master plan.
The site lies just to the east of the urban growth area (UGA) line, and adjacent to RS-20 zoned land including at least one neighboring subdivision.
Organizers from the Erwin-Cornwallis Organization (ECO) called for a look at alternative locations; besides the Duke space north of the Costco, they suggested looking at vacant commercial land off 15-501 near the SuperTarget.
Better still, per Myers' and others' suggestions: an expansion of both Jordan and Riverside, which Myers noted could support hundreds more students apiece if retrofitted to being multiple stories instead of single-story, flat sites.
(No residents from Garrett Rd. or Rose of Sharon Rd. were present to comment on the idea -- though one can imagine they might not be thrilled.)
Residents also spent a significant amount of time talking about how to lobby school and county officials in opposition to the idea; Vigdor told the standing-room-only crowd that BOCC member Becky Heron had already called to express her opposition to the school site.
Look for emails and snail mail aplenty to BOCC, DPS, and Duke officials from residents who, based on last night's turnout, seem uniform in their opposition to the plan.
* -- Our estimate of turnout was based on counting the rough number of persons per row, multiplying by the number of rows, and adding in about 25% more to cover those on the room's perimeter and in the hall outside -- obviously, an imperfect measure. Organizers estimated a higher turnout, given that all 200 handouts were taken and some households shared a single copy, for perhaps 200-300 turnout.