DURHAM – In March, the Korn School appeared to be heading towards demolition, but after a successful petition and referendum, the Town of Durham has decided to take over the empty school after all, with the intention of converting the closed building into a multi-purpose community center over the coming years.
Durham residents voted 708-546 to have the town take the school from the Region 13 School District for $1 on Tuesday. They also voted 630-606 to approve drawing $1 million from the town’s building reserve fund for the initial project costs, according to unofficial results that include absentee ballots.
First Selectman Laura Francis said she has already met with Region 13 Superintendent Doug Schuch to start working on next steps, and the town planner is already preparing a change of use permit that the Planning and Zoning Commission will need to approve.
“We’re not going to drag our feet on that, because we want to start looking at the mechanicals of the building right away,” Francis said. “With the warmer weather coming, we don’t want that building to incur any further decay.”
The former Frances E. Korn Elementary School looked like it would be demolished after the Durham Board of Selectmen voted in March to decline to take the school from Region 13. A petition to overturn that vote collected 118 valid signatures – enough to force a town meeting on the question.
The top priority is now “bringing the building back to life,” Francis said. That includes fixing any mechanical issues, having code inspections and getting that change of use permit. The next step will be to set a more detailed plan for renovating the building into a community center.
Francis said there will be challenges and some difficult choices ahead when the town decides what the community center needs to have, but she said she’s looking forward to hearing different perspectives from people in Durham.
“We’re excited about exploring the possibilities that we haven’t even contemplated yet,” Francis said. “This is a game changer for the town of Durham, in terms of programs that we’re going to be able to offer, space that will be available to our civic organizations. It’s really going to be, I think, transformational for our town.”
A total of 1,254 votes were cast in the question of whether to take Korn School, which is about 23 percent of registered voters in Durham. When a similar question was put to voters in 2018, there were 1,555 votes cast, and voters rejected taking the school and bonding $7 million for renovations by a vote of 987-609.
This time, the project doesn’t have a final price tag, but it will likely cost several million dollars and will take several years. There will be more public hearings and funding questions along the way, and Francis said she hopes people stay engaged with the process and make sure their voices are heard.
“I hope this new energy that was generated by this question continues,” Francis said. “Even from the detractors, even the people who voted ‘no,’ please stay involved because your voice still needs to be heard as we make choices on how we’re going to renovate and use the building.”