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July 2011

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.

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

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. 

Continue reading "A bit of shine comes off Durham public school test data" »

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. 

Continue reading "UPDATED: Graduation rate, test scores rise for Durham Public Schools" »

"Bargain Furniture" building to get a Pit below, Underground above?

309-e-chapel-hill In one of the opening scenes of the dreadful, horrendous, abysmal, and also badly-acted film "Main Street" -- there's a reason, friends, you haven't seen this straight-to-DVD movie in theaters anywhere -- Amber Tamblyn's character drives her late-80s beater car up in front of the Bargain Furniture building downtown, checking her voicemail.

(If I were Tamblyn, I'd be waiting to hear a message from my agent, apologizing for booking me in a piece-of-crap film.)

The shuttered furniture store makes a perfect backdrop for Main Street's message of Southern discomfort, of old money gone broke and new money gone toxic; it's a symbol of desertion and loss and emptiness.

But no longer, it seems. There's activity downstairs and possibly up for the building, long controlled by Raleigh entrepreneur Greg Hatem and Durham architect and developer John Warasila.

In an ironic turnabout, the American Underground -- the incubator space that's nicely humanized a pit of a basement in the Strickland and Crowe buildings at Am'bacco -- may be expanding to the upper floors of 309 E. Chapel Hill St., while an a Durham location of the Raleigh barbecue restaurant called The Pit may be opening up on the ground floor.

Continue reading ""Bargain Furniture" building to get a Pit below, Underground above?" »

Daisy Cakes signs lease on permanent home at 401A Foster St.

Durham's Daisy Cakes -- the popular food truck (well, food Airstream) eatery -- has found a home downtown for a brick-and-mortar expansion of its mobile cupcakes biz.

It's not the first Durham food truck to go wheel-free; that honor belongs to Only Burger. It's not the first downtown bakery to bloom from an irregular-hours Durham Central Park niche; that'd be Phoebe Lawless' awesome Scratch Bakery. And it's not the first "cupcake bar" announced for downtown Durham -- that'd be The Cupcake Bar from Durhamite and former Greenfire staffer Anna Branly and her sister, pegged for Scott Harmon's Five Points revamping.

Daisycakes But that doesn't make it any sweeter to learn that Daisy Cakes has formally signed a lease for space in 401A Foster Street, the industrial building rehabbed by Scientific Properties that's also home to Piedmont, Urban Durham Realty and the Bull City Arts Collaborative.

BCR's learned that the Foster St. space will be the home for Daisy Cakes, which put out a Kickstarter project last year looking to raise $20,000 in pledges towards a brick and mortar location. (The news, received from a source on Saturday, was confirmed in a tweet by the DaisyCakes folks that day.)

And the choice of locales shouldn't be a surprise, given that a Central Park-area location has been the goal for the small business' owners since they launched a fundraising campaign towards a permanent locale.

Continue reading "Daisy Cakes signs lease on permanent home at 401A Foster St." »

Like a good neighbor: Durham Rescue Mission and North-East Central Durham try to make plans together

A major player in North-East Central Durham got together with its neighbors Tuesday evening to start collaborating on a shared vision for the area’s future. 

While nothing was finalized at Tuesday’s public input session, it seems something important may have been decided by its end. Both sides — the Durham Rescue Mission and North-East Central Durham residents — proved themselves willing to listen to each other in charting a course for the mission’s expansion. 

Gail Mills, a co-founder of the mission along with husband Ernie, was among the presenters at the session, which the nonprofit group Durham Area Designers convened. 

“We have spent time envisioning how can we create a model campus on the men’s campus to meet the needs of not only the men that come to the Rescue Mission but the community around us as well,” Mills said. 

“We’re hoping to make a glittering gem on this corner, to make it something attractive, something that people would like to look at,” the Rev. Robert Tart, another Rescue Mission official, told a group of about 40 people who gathered in the city of Durham’s Neighborhood Improvement Services conference room at Golden Belt Arts. 


~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The mission opened a modern, comfortable women’s and children’s campus, the Good Samaritan Inn, on East Knox Street near Interstate 85 a few years ago. Now the mission’s attention has turned to its men’s facilities in the organization’s original neighborhood, North-East Central Durham. 

The big challenge is a lack of space for both regular activities and special events, the Millses and Tart told listeners. The average number of daily residents at the mission has risen from 150 in 2008 to 206 last year — a jump of one-third. The men’s campus kitchen, which prepares three meals a day, has only 150 square feet. The dining room seats just 70 people at a time, less than half of the needed capacity. 

Moreover, mission officials want expanded housing for three types of clients — those in need of emergency shelter, those who are in transitional housing while they study, work or get medical treatment, and those who are nearly ready to live independently. 

But the organization also stages four annual events — for Easter, the start of the new school year, Thanksgiving and Christmas — that can draw around 4,000 people each. These events are geared toward the community, especially the working poor, and involve giveaways of food, clothing and (in August) backpacks and school supplies. Attendance has been so large that mission leaders have grown concerned about safety. 

“We need more room, not just to feed people. We need more room for these people to move and if you will to play,” Tart said. “If you will, to conduct the activities that we do at these events. And under our current setup, it’s extremely difficult.” 

It’s worth noting that by the mission’s own calculations, it provided $7.9 million in value to the community in 2010 by providing shelter, giveaways, classes and other services. The mission does not receive any government money, Gail Mills said. 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The mission is raising funds for a new Center for Hope that would help meet its needs. Officials hope to secure $4.5 million in the first phase of their capital campaign, aided in part by a 1:1 matching grant from the Stewards Fund of Raleigh. If the mission can collect $400,000 by Oct. 31, the fund will double that amount. 

Those numbers, however, weren’t part of the presentation Tuesday. Nor were other specifics given. 

At the end of the meeting, mission leaders were asked for additional details. “We haven’t come up with a whole lot because we wanted to get the input from the community first,” the Rev. Ernie Mills replied. 

Still, mission officials seemed amenable to providing at least a partial description of what they want to build by July 30. On that morning, at 8:30 a.m. at the Eastway Elementary School library, Durham Area Designers will lead a session at which community members will try to make plans that fit their needs as well as the mission’s. 

That spirit of cooperation, and the determination at least to check with residents before drawing up construction documents, is helping to set up a process that has a chance to leave both sides satisfied. 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

As the old saw goes, of course, it takes two to tango. Neighbors, for their part, are willing to be consulted — and to listen to the mission’s desires. 

Which isn’t to say that everyone’s happy about what the mission is contemplating. 

For instance, resident John Martin took issue with Tart’s saying that the mission wants to close parts of Morning Glory and Worth streets in order to expand the campus. 

“I was hoping that you’d leave those streets open so that we’d have connectivity in the neighborhood,” Martin said. “I think that’s something that’s important.” 

Gary Kueber is the chief operating officer of Golden Belt Arts owner Scientific Properties, which has rehabbed and even built houses near the complex. He tacitly agreed with Martin’s concerns about connectivity. 

Referring to designers of the nearby Few Gardens complex, Kueber said: “They created a superblock that was entirely inwardly focused. That was — that has failed. That method of blocking off communities, blocking off streets, creating dead ends, et cetera, has failed in these neighborhoods.” 

The recently reconstituted Franklin Village, to the north of the rescue mission’s properties, reconnected residential streets, Kueber noted. 

It was suggested that the mission hold its four annual events not on its property but at Eastway Elementary, which has a big parcel and is across the street from a city park. Such a move might obviate the need for street closures. 

Resident Chloe Palenchar said that she wanted the mission’s overhauled campus to be open to the community, at least visually. 

“When I’m in West Durham, I can go on Duke campus so easily and see across their two- or three-foot walls to their gorgeous campus,” she said. “I mean, that’s such an asset to West Durham. If you guys can put that in my community, I would thank you. I would really thank you.” 

She also expressed the hope that North-East Central Durham might get a garden similar to the one at Good Samaritan Inn. 

DeDreana Freeman pointed out that the scale of most of the houses in Golden Belt’s old mill village, to the plant’s east, are similar. And there are just four styles of homes in the area, she noted. 

Others pointed out that lot sizes in the area tend to be similar, although different streets have different setbacks from the street, and only some have sidewalks. 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Architect Steve Gaddis of Durham Area Designers led perhaps the most interactive part of Tuesday’s meeting, in which a panel of residents and members of the audience discussed the neighborhood’s future. That was the segment in which Martin, Palenchar, Freeman and others aired their views. 

While fielding the comments — which included a desire for more commercial storefronts — Gaddis boiled them down to three statements. Residents and mission leaders will try to apply these guiding principles on July 30 when they hash out some more specific plans. 

And those principles? In no particular order, that the neighborhood’s historic architectural stock should be preserved; that neighborhood connectivity should be maintained or increased; and that community safety should be improved. 

“I think we have at least a fruitful start to our effort,” Gaddis said when the time came to wrap up the meeting. 

Which isn’t to say that working out a mutually acceptable compromise will be easy — after all, the Rescue Mission wants to increase its presence in the neighborhood substantially, bringing more residents who are by definition troubled. The ability of existing single-family homes to serve that group, and the extent to which the mission and community value separation of such residents for security’s sake vs. integration of them for community’s sake, could require significant discussion. 

Interestingly, the major upcoming construction project that drew heated criticism was not the mission’s growth (which, after all, has yet to be charted). Instead, it was the planned Alston Avenue widening, which has been ruffling feathers in the area for years. 

As Melissa Norton, a Golden Belt resident and the government relations director for Downtown Durham Inc., said: “Alston Avenue is really bad. The way that it’s designed now is creating a lot of problems for people getting through and around these neighborhoods.” 

By contrast, there was no overt opposition to the Rescue Mission’s growth — although that may change as the process moves forward. 

For now, though, there’s a spirit of partnership that could serve both sides well. Here’s hoping that it lasts. 

Bigger and better? Expanded CenterFest to feature broader spectrum of attractions, powered by wide-ranging gamut of ambitions

The state’s oldest arts festival will take a hiatus this year in order to reinvent itself. 

The 38th annual CenterFest Arts Festival will be held not in September (as the event Website still erroneously states) but in 2012, officials with the Durham Arts Council and partner organizations announced this morning. 

“We want to reshape it and grow it into something even more exciting that reflects the tremendous creativity going on in Durham today,” Sherry DeVries, the executive director of the council, said at the announcement. 

So what does that mean in practical terms? The expanded event will feature an enlarged name — tentatively, CenterFest: Festival of Arts, Music, Food and Creativity. That reflects what should be a broader palette of attractions. 

“Edible arts” will be among the added features, showcasing the city’s foodie culture as well as local brews and beer gardens and in-state wineries. Organizers also want to add hands-on features such as arts and fine craft demonstrations; more entertainment stages and venues; a Saturday-night “music party”; and “showcases for design, gaming and technology arts.” 

“There’s so many cool, creative things happening in Durham right now,” DeVries said. “We want to incorporate as many of those things as we possibly can in this process.” 

Continue reading "Bigger and better? Expanded CenterFest to feature broader spectrum of attractions, powered by wide-ranging gamut of ambitions" »

What would it take to make a revitalized CenterFest great?

Yesterday's announcement that CenterFest would be taking a year off to refocus, regroup and retool its mission seemed to me to be a great step towards making North Carolina's longest-running street arts festival a signature draw for a revitalized downtown Durham.

We may get more details in a press conference today (BCR's Matthew Milliken will have coverage), but what's known from yesterday's press release and media coverage is that CenterFest's pause is intended to allow the festival to be expanded with a goal of making it what organizers at the Durham Arts Council are calling a "national caliber signature event for Durham."

And while a visioning process is needed, a range of possibilities is evident; "edible arts" (presumably focused on Durham's burgeoning and nationally-known food scene), local beers and wines, craft and art demonstrations, and "showcases" for technology, gaming and design are all possible. 

So too could be higher-profile musical performing acts, including the possibility of major artists performing at the event.

It's a welcome change, and one that couldn't come at a better time.

The complaints about CenterFest in recent years have been pointed, focused in part on the banal, hot surface parking lot on Foster St. where the festival has moved in recent years. It provided a much-simpler logistical configuration for the DAC than was seen when the festival filled the inside-the-loop City Center district before, or took to the West Village area for a brief decampment during downtown streetscape work.

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Eat, drink and be bullish: Downtown food scene expansion continues

Downtown Durham is continuing to add its menu of culinary offerings. The expansion is bringing full-fledged restaurants as well as other types of establishments. 

The latest addition to the downtown food scene arrived earlier this month at 405 E. Chapel Hill St. That’s the home of Reliable Cheese, a new fromagerie aimed at lovers of pressed milk curds. 

As owner Patrick Coleff, 34, was getting the store in order before its debut, he talked for a few minutes about his background. The Cleveland native originally had a day job in legal publishing and a night job as a line cook. “I loved what I was doing in the evening, hated with was doing in the day,” he said. 

Coleff decided to become a cheesemonger, which work he pursued for four years in New York City. He and his wife moved to Durham in 2009. 

The shop will stock a relatively small number of products — some 50 varieties of small-producer American and European cheeses, 20 different meats, 20 different wines (selected with assistance from the Wine Authorities) and 20 different beers, including at least one line of locally brewed beverages. 

Coleff, who will be hiring a part-time staffer, is making sandwiches at his shop. “I love deli sandwiches,” he said. “No one around here’s doing them.” 

And customers will be able to take advantage of his dairy expertise. Coleff is excited about exposing Durhamites to a number of new and exotic tastes. “I know a lot about cheese so they don’t have to,” he quipped. 

The shop will provide samples, sells cheese plates and will cut cheese to order. It has opened to at least one positive early notice from the Carpe Durham blog.  

Continue reading "Eat, drink and be bullish: Downtown food scene expansion continues" »