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BCR's Daily Fishwrap Report for June 17, 2009

West Durham neighbors unite over opposition to new Erwin/Cornwallis high school site

Forestview_eco 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.



Katherine Myers is right on point...what I've been saying before on this blog everytime school construction and reassingments come along. Alas, most find it too uncomfortable to talk about the widening gap of race and class in Durham's Public Schools. Hillside and Southern and all the other schools can't afford more "harvesting" of higher-performing students from mostly upper income white families just to end up with the most popular school in the most desireable real estate of West Durham. Just look at Creekside's growth which came along with the success of the Southpoint area and its high-end neighborhoods crammed into a class segregated corner of the county school district that made it impractical to draw students from poorer neighborhoods


An easy answer to this overcrowding at Jordan and Riverside is to simply redraw the boundaries and bus more students from West Durham neighborhoods to Hillside and Northern. Can you imagine the size of the protest if that were to happen?? I wonder what could possibly be the objection to such a move.

Erik Landfried

Ugh, ugh, ugh. What a banner start to this process. If residents are concerned that DPS might build a new school in their neighborhood, why not, I don't know, invite someone from DPS to attend so that they can ask questions? Ms. Myers thinks Jordan and Hillside can just be enlarged to accommodate the overcrowding. Well DPS seems to disagree apparently. But DPS couldn't counter her argument because they weren't invited (or maybe they just didn't show, in which case that's their fault and the rest of this comment is kind of moot).

What's likely to come out of this meeting? A bunch of people are going to band together and complain to DPS, complain to City Council, complain to the BOCC, complain to Duke, and most of them will have almost no facts to back up their complaints and all of them have only heard one side of the story thus far.

Here's a novel thought. Engage DPS. Give yourself a chance to hear both sides of an argument before making up your mind. If you have questions or concerns, raise them with someone who can actually address them (former chairs don't count). If you don't think that DPS has made a decision based on good, rational argument or you feel that they failed to consider all options, then take it to the elected officials.

I guess staying entrenched in your own personal ideological world is just the American way, so I suppose I should just get used to it. But I refuse.

Todd P

The idea of expanding Riverside and Jordan is nuts. Riverside already has 10 trailers and just under 2,000 students, and Jordan had 1,864 students. How many high schools are there in NC with more than 2,000 students? Not a lot. Lunch already starts by 10 AM.

As to some of the other points, both Riverside and Jordan are on 2 lane roads, and all of Durham lies within the Jordan or Falls watershed. Any commercial site on a 4-lane road is going to cost a lot more to buy. And according to the DPS website, the high schools across the county were 3% over capacity 2 years ago.

As of the 2006-07 school year, the high school numbers were as follows:
DSA - 741, 93% of capacity.
Early College - 245, 100%
Hillside - 1,450, 94%
Jordan - 1,864, 103%, 1 trailer
Middle College - 78, 100%
Northern - 1,671, 93%
Riverside - 1,997, 130%, 10 trailers
Southern - 1,559, 101%
TOTAL - 9,605, 103%, 11 trailers, and a net of 270 HS students over capacity 2 years ago.

I am not sure where all the extra capacity is that Katherine Myers referred to.

It would be interesting to see details on the site near Costco - I cannot really place where that would be. The Costco area seems to be pretty well surrounded by neighborhoods who would probably have a lot of the very same objections as the Erwin Road folks.

@ GreenLantern - I am not sure redrawing the boundaries would be necessary, but placing a cap on enrollment at crowded schools and denying transfer requests would be a start. I am pretty sure that won't fly, though.

The HS attendance zones can be found here:

It is not all "high-end" neighborhoods feeding Riverside. The Riverside district goes all the way down to the Durham Freeway at Alston Ave, taking in most or all of the Eastway Elementary district - one of the most disadvantaged in the city, along with Walltown and Braggtown - home of our now-closed Wal-Mart. Roxboro St is the North/South dividing line between Riverside and Northern.

Some neighborhood in north or west Durham is going to get a new high school, and they may not be happy about it. That does not make building a new school unnecessary.


These days, no matter what decision is made by whomever, there is ALWAYS going to be an opposition group that gathers and tries to fight it for their own personal gain...I think these are probably mostly residents of the area that don't want increased traffic and everything else that comes along with that...Nothing else to it.

Kevin Davis

@Erik: According to the organizers last night, DPS officials were invited but were either unavailable or declined to participate. One of the complaints of the organizers has been that DPS didn't let anyone know they were looking at the site until (literally) Ms. Vigdor saw surveyors on her property, which backs up to the proposed school site, and she asked why they were there.

It was noted during the meeting that school site locations are one of three kinds of information that school boards are allowed to meet about in closed session out of a fear of discussions over site purchases driving up prices. Vigdor alluded to this only getting out into the public realm because the putative landowner is Duke.

So, it seems a little unfair to characterize neighbors as unwilling to work with DPS -- although I do think one of the ideas bandied about last night (DPS coming up with multiple sites and then bringing them all to the public for hearings and feedback) is realistic give the nature of these kind of processes, in which there is some cause for pause before announcing a site.


I think Myers is confusing cause and effect when she states that Jordan & Riverside are "good because they're big." Test scores--if that is what we are using to establish which schools are "good"--correlate highly with socioeconomic status (SES) of the student population. Jordan and Riverside have lower rates of students receiving federally subsidized lunches than any other high schools in DPS other than DSA and Middle College (as of 2008). Thus, it stands to reason that their student body is of a higher average SES and their test scores reflect that. Their higher test scores and/or SES likely draws additional students to Jordan and Riverside via transfer, but whether this increased size allows them to maintain their test scores may have a lot to do with the quality of students transferring into them. Jordan's and Riverside's large size, therefore, is a by-product of their being perceived as "good", not the cause of it.


I think Katharine Myers undid her argument about 'harvesting' students when she mentioned that students were 'harvested' from Jordan and Northern--that was to create Riverside wasn't it? That seems to have worked out quite well.

Durham as a community must figure out some way to have all great high schools! This business of having your fate sealed by the school you attend is nuts! Our community needs to have every student get the very best education possible. Who do you want taking care of you in your old age?


Seems like the perfect place for a school. Kudos for planning the next school in the city, as opposed to more infrastructure supporting never ending the sprawl. It's not easy to find a large tract near existing development, and this is it.

Why look a gift horse in the mouth?


IMO Cornwallis Rd./Duke Forest is not the ideal location for a school for reasons that I will get to later. At the same time, when did schools become targets as if they were low-income housing or something. I thought they were supposed to boost property values and more importantly unite the surrounding community.

Wouldn't it be nice for kids to be able to walk to school? Some would still drive but there are improvements that can be made to improve traffic flow around schools during these peak times.

There is also the question of "Why not just expand Riverside/Jordan?" Why not? Why not build another cafeteria along with a new wing? Would the new wing be a school-within-a-school?

After expanding Riverside and Jordan, they could build a smaller Montessori or Magnet HS near Duke Homestead or another urban site. Schools should be connected and part of neighborhoods. This is the Duke Forest site's most glaring shortfall.

There are many opportunities and will just require DPS (and the communities) to open their collective minds and stop all of the self-righteous rhetoric...

G Wolf

Sasha -
I hope (assume) you're joking.

"Kudos for planning the next school in the city, as opposed to more infrastructure supporting never ending the sprawl."

More sprawl is exactly what this school would bring. Instead of ripping apart 50 acres of perfectly-preserved forest, why doesn't DPS seek out some land to reclaim that's a little closer to the center of town?


There's plenty of room just east of the old Durham Bulls ballbark downtown, across from the Liberty warehouse.


What about taking over something like Oxford Commons? With Walmart closing, it's unlikely there will be another anchor going in there.

Todd P

This new school needs to be somewhat near the center of the Jordan/Riverside districts since it will be taking students from both. Oxford Commons is a long way from the Jordan district, could boost transportation costs, and actually lies within the Northern district. Building a new high school there would mean shifting attendance lines for other schools as well, and might actually reduce the diversity of Riverside/Jordan.

Redeveloping Oxford Commons for a elementary or middle school would be worth considering, although the new Voyager Academy charter school in Independence Park has taken some of the pressure off of schools in north Durham.

Personally, I would like to see Parks & Rec turn Oxford Commons into a regional park with a bunch of playing fields.


Northern High School isn't far away enough to pull in students from as far southeast as Geer Street, or as far out to NE and NW corners of the county, so why should the new high school be located between Riverside and Jordan? Placing a new high school in the center of town would make it much easier to diversify ALL the high schools.


They should build the HS by the Super Target on 15-501. Build on the car dealerships that have closed.

NW Durham Resident

The growth of the NW Durham area is in young families with small children. Thought should not only be given to current enrollment but to future expectations as well. I think Duke Forest doesn't have to be impacted, instead we should build a green high school and partner with Duke for a program in forestry science.


Wetlands should not be destroyed for any purpose.

Has anyone heard of damp?

Is there a petition?

jay brebner

Regarding the proposed Treyburn middle school: Does anyone have any further information on the Snow Hill gangs objections to this project? I am trying to track down more info on this as I would like to attend the BOCC meeting Aug 10th.



Has there been any update on this issue recently?

Kevin Davis

@Private: I believe the Erwin/Cornwallis site is, for all intents and purposes, deader than a doornail.


Any info on the building underway at Erwin and Cornwallis?


Who is the contact for the status of determining where the new HS will go?


I've heard (from unofficial but knowledgeable sources) that the new high school is likely to be built on a DPS-owned parcel at 3000 Duke Homestead -- with frontage along Stadium Drive as well:

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