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September 2009

Parents get sneak peek at DPS' Montessori middle school plans for Lakewood Y


The 75 parents who attended last night's Durham Public Schools information session on the new Montessori middle school slated for the to-be-renovated Lakewood YMCA building could look around and get a good sense of what the school's inaugural class would look like.

That's because besides many being parents of current students at DPS' two existing Montessori elementaries, which receive linkage privileges in the entry lottery, the attendance at the event roughly mirrored the 75 or so students expected in the first sixth grade class at the school.

That class -- to be housed at the George Watts Montessori Magnet school on Watts St. -- will be the first to become part of what's slated to become a three-hundred student home for sixth through eighth graders.

And that also means the first class enrolled as sixth graders will see a lot of changes by the time that they complete eighth grade. "We can't be everything in year one that we can in year three," said DPS assistant superintendent for secondary education Chris Bennett.

And while the audience was full of parents who seemed eager for their kids to continue their K-5 Montessori education in a middle school format, he also warned parents that there would be some natural tradeoffs in attending the District's smallest middle school.

"It is different. It is not traditional. And it is not a traditional middle school," Bennett noted.

Continue reading "Parents get sneak peek at DPS' Montessori middle school plans for Lakewood Y" »

OWD's Green St. nears end of repaving nightmare -- don't worry, it'll get torn up again soon


One might think that two departments in Durham's City government -- like, say the people who pave the roads, and the people who run the water system -- would be talking to each other on projects that impact the same street.

You certainly might think that. And you'd most certainly be wrong. (And, to boot, you'd be proving that you haven't lived here long enough.)

Dear readers, I give you the sad tale of one Green St., a short hilly segment that passes through a happy bit of the Bull City known as Old West Durham.

The residents of Green St. have been paying the price of this seeming communication snafu for months now, we hear -- in the form of a street that was torn up to be repaved, only to have that repaving paused when, it turned out, one City department realized its counterpart would need to come through 'real soon now' to tear the street up to replace a water main.

The intervening 'real soon now' period has meant months of agonizing street conditions while the City held off repaving this last section of OWD.

Now, at last, at least a minimal repaving is set to take place, eliminating "chattering teeth" from the bumps -- but also meaning that the road will get the dig-up-and-replace treatment one more time at some point in the next two years.

Continue reading "OWD's Green St. nears end of repaving nightmare -- don't worry, it'll get torn up again soon" »

BCR's Daily Fishwrap Report for September 30, 2009

A quick note for readers: due to the time needed last night for other stories for today (one on a Green St. repaving mess, another on the new Montessori middle school), the next installment in the "Why I'm Voting For..." series won't be out until tomorrow morning.)

In today's news:

Council's Out at DPD: The H-S' Ray Gronberg has more details on the departure of B.J. Council from her second-in-command role at the Durham P.D.; according to Gronberg's reporting, Council was "relieved of her duties" yesterday. City manager Tom Bonfield tells Gronberg that the audit's results will be turned over to District Attorney Tracey Cline, who can choose whether or not to pursue charges -- or who could bring in the S.B.I. or state Attorney General Roy Cooper to review. (Herald-Sun)

Holton Running at One-Eighth Capacity: The Herald-Sun's Matt Milliken was on hand at the Holton School in East Durham yesterday to witness DPS superintendent get a haircut from the student barbers. A great photo-op -- and one that Milliken notes is meant to drive interest in the brand-new, $17 million vo-tech, community and recreational center. 54 students are enrolled, one-eighth of its capacity. (Herald-Sun) (BCR's take: In fairness to the effort, it's pretty natural that a new program will take a while to gain students, especially given the amount of outreach needed to parents about course offering, transportation from local base schools and the like.)

Continue reading "BCR's Daily Fishwrap Report for September 30, 2009" »

DPD's B.J. Council out in officer OT probe

BCR has learned that deputy policy chief B.J. Council -- a close and trusted number two to Chief Jose Lopez, and who moved up in the ranks to significant authority under his leadership in the department -- will be leaving her post over the recent scandal in which a police officer earned tens of thousands of dollars in overtime pay, far more than her regular salary.


Council will be leaving her job a few months ahead of her eligibility for retirement; the long-standing officer is expected to bridge into retirement using accrued time. The officer fingered in the overtime matter is also expected to be terminated.

City Manager Tom Bonfield -- whose own audit team led the investigation, as opposed to a look-in run by the DPD itself -- is expected to announce these outcomes at a 1pm press conference on Wednesday.

Independent sources have told BCR of Council's prominence in the investigation; the officer in question, Alesha Robinson-Taylor, reported to a supervisor who in turn reported to Council.

The audit report is expected to turn on what role Council played in approving the overtime on Robinson-Taylor's behalf.

Look for more on this, we expect, in tomorrow's Herald-Sun; WTVD is also reporting Council's exit.

AT&T offers Durhamites better cellular coverage -- if you buy your own little cell repeater


One of the most frequent questions to pop up on neighborhood listservs in the areas in and around downtown is a very simple yet important one in these days of always-connected communications:

"What cell carrier do you use?" they ask -- followed quickly by, "Do you get good signal coverage?"

The carriers aren't solely to blame. Older houses tend to have wood lathe and plaster walls that don't handle cell signals as well as modern drywall does. And the heavy foliage in urban neighborhoods might get in the way, too, for all I know.

In my house, I go to the back porch to use my personal Verizon cell, and there are clear dead spots within the house (like the guest bedroom) where calls die upon entry. My AT&T work phone has its own areas of strength and weakness.

Now, AT&T customers at least have an option to get around some of these issues. Fret not: AT&T is giving Triangle and Charlotte residents the chance to buy "microcells."

Yes, for the low price of $150 -- and the Internet service you already pay for -- you, too, can help fix your cell carrier's coverage problems.

Continue reading "AT&T offers Durhamites better cellular coverage -- if you buy your own little cell repeater" »

Why I'm voting for... Bell, Woodard for re-election

This is the first in a three-day series explaining the author's own thoughts on why I'm voting for certain candidates in the upcoming elections. See this introductory post for more details.

I've gathered the races for mayor and Ward 3 into a single post because they're the most straightforward decisions -- and because both races feature many similarities.

Both Bill Bell and Mike Woodard have demonstrated a mastery of the issues and have the financial, civic and personal leadership qualities I spoke of in my description of the facets that matter to me in choosing municipal candidates. Both have extensive experience serving Durham on local and regional councils, and are voices for Durham issues in the General Assembly.

And both have tended to be voices of unity, not division in Durham -- a point I'll come back to in looking at the Ward 1 and Ward 2 races.

Simply put, given my desire to see candidates who have the experience (inside or outside government) to be effective leaders, and who also have a keen knowledge of the issues Durham faces, the choice wasn't hard.

Neither of their opponents -- Steven Williams in the mayor's race, or Allan Polak in the Ward 3 race -- have made significant appearances or comments in the race, and neither seems to bring the history of engagement in Durham issues, organizations or politics that I want to see in elected officials.

Continue reading "Why I'm voting for... Bell, Woodard for re-election" »

Corcoran parking deck rehab gets underway

That two-year-old "Starting Soon!" sign that hung for the longest while on the Corcoran St. downtown parking deck (initially erected just before a 2007 bond issue to promise taxpayers the '05 bond capital items would start real soon now) is about to actually have some tangible meaning.

Work was tentatively scheduled to begin this week on the rehab of the aging parking deck, whose concrete-striped exterior stands prominently along Durham's skyline in a city where redevelopment plans built both the circus (of the Downtown Loop) and the parking-deckus maximus (with the Corcoran Deck) in a 1960s re-imagining of the city center that ended up being not so Roman in its grandeur.

The $2.7 million effort with Balfour Beatty lost time in '07 due to a project manager's resignation and the re-prioritization of emergency repairs to the E. Chapel Hill St. deck -- a structure which, to continue the Roman theme, saw a decline in structural integrity to the point that heavy trucks were kept off the upper levels to prevent the deck's fall.

But now it's set to go underway. Much of the work is addressing deferred maintenance neglected by City leaders in recent decades, and which has caught up in the form of damage caused by water infiltration, among other things.

Continue reading "Corcoran parking deck rehab gets underway" »

BCR's Daily Fishwrap Report for September 29, 2009

Fundraising Reports Still Quiet: Going into the Oct. 6 election cycle, most candidates have still raised fairly little money for the election; many challengers are under the $3,000 non-reporting mark, with incumbents Bell, Cole-McFadden and Clement all roughly at or below the $4,000 tally. (Woodard's report is due in today.) Of challengers, only Hughes has gone over the $3,000 level, using $1,875 of his own funds and donations from some local leaders as well as many small donations via his web site to have raised over $3,600 himself. All of this remains a far cry from 2007, when challenger Thomas Stith spent over $100,000 in a losing effort for the mayoral seat. (Herald-Sun)

Big Poverty Decline in '08?: Data released from the Census Bureau found the Triangle -- including Durham -- bucking statewide trends with rising income and declining poverty in 2008. 15% of Durham residents lived below the poverty line in 2008, versus 18.3% in 2007; the city's median income increased slightly. Raleigh's poverty rate was up, to 13.3%; Cary's remained under 4%, with almost as large a percentage of individuals earning over $200k HHI (13.2% of population) in 2008 as lived in poverty in Raleigh and Durham that year. (Triangle Business Journal)

Judge Okays Boone Court Demo: A ruling from Durham Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson cleared the way for the City to delay five Haskell Properties apartments on Boone Court in East Durham; City administrators say they'll confer up the food chain and with the city attorney before deciding whether to proceed with the work, after an NIS staffer apparently nearly endangered a bankruptcy court's OK for demolition earlier this summer by giving the "Fireball" White family one last chance to make right with the long-criticized properties. (Herald-Sun)

Chapel Hill's Trash, Durham's Treasure?: One way to make money in a recession -- use your solid waste system to take trash for a neighbor struggling to take in its own. A Chapel Hill Town Council vote Monday opposed Orange County's use of the Town Operations Center or sites on Millhouse Road for solid waste disposal. (N&O) If Orange County runs out of internal options, the use of Durham's solid waste transfer site -- and possible future collaboration on a joint site -- remains a possibility, however distant.

Continue reading "BCR's Daily Fishwrap Report for September 29, 2009" »

BCR's "Why I'm Voting For..." series: An introduction

In three years of writing Bull City Rising, I've generally shied away from "endorsing" candidates. But it's a position I've wrestled with. There are stories where I purposefully try to take the most objective perspective possible -- in recaps of candidate debates, for instance.

But I've also had folks ask in the past if I'd share what my thoughts were on races, particularly this fall's race. Some say it's because they're not sure they align with or feel connected to Durham's PACs. Others say it's because they'd just like to know where I stand on the election, as someone who's been watching the race.

I put the trial balloon out on the blog in recent weeks, and asked for feedback from readers as to whether they'd find my recommendations on candidates a help or hindrance. The response, by email and in the comments, was overwhelmingly positive.

So, this week, I'm going to step purposefully into the frame, and share who I'm voting for -- and why. But, in keeping with my approach to BCR, I'm not going to call these "endorsements" per se.

Instead, I'd like to focus on my reasons for making the choices I'm making at the ballot box this fall. Many of you may reach different conclusions, particularly if the factors that matter to you in a candidate vary from mine. That's why I'm calling this series "Why I'm Voting For" -- rather than an endorsement.

Over the next three days, I'll tackle the mayoral and City Council ward races. But before going there, I'd like to start with some background -- on why I think we as a community too often get it wrong in choosing our elected officials.

Continue reading "BCR's "Why I'm Voting For..." series: An introduction" »

Clement, incumbents take heat from forum challengers over support for poorer, black neighborhoods

Sunday's City Council candidate debate forum sponsored by Unity in the Community for Progress (UCP) was a fairly small affair, one dominated by political leaders and activists in Durham's black community, including Larry and Denise Hester, the Rev. Mel Whitley, Jackie Wagstaff, ex-Council member Thomas Stith, and a face that's been popping up on DTV8 screens more and more often -- Mozella McLaughlin, the property owner at the heart of one of Durham's key political controversies this fall.

And for last night's debate, a heated exchange between the 92-year-old McLaughlin and that (comparatively) young whippersnapper, Ward 2 incumbent Howard Clement, epitomized the nature of the dialogue in the often tense room.

(Want to hear the forum for yourself? Download BCR's audio recording of the forum from the Internet Archive.)

All five Ward 2 candidates were present, and save for Matt Drew -- who brings an entirely-orthagonal, anti-incentives position to this question -- the discussion of the afternoon event centered largely on whether Durham has invested too heavily in downtown and other "prosperous" areas while neglecting poorer, largely black districts like Fayetteville St. and North-East Central Durham.

Sandra Howell took the hardest line on this question, followed closely by Sylvester Williams.

Clement strongly defended his tenure, noting that he was part of a "team" of seven elected officials on Council that he said worked hard for what was best for Durham.

"Experience does matter. I'm not a Johnny-come-lately," Clement said, repeating a phrase he used at a Young Democrats event earlier in the week. "I don't think any of you have been embarrassed by my service," he added.

Continue reading "Clement, incumbents take heat from forum challengers over support for poorer, black neighborhoods" »