By Tony E. Windsor

A request by Laurel town officials for state funding to support the renovations of the former Paul Laurence Dunbar Elementary School arrived later than hoped, but nonetheless arrived. Due to the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, state lawmakers last year were unable to respond to a request by Laurel Representative Tim Dukes and State Sen. Bryant L. Richardson to support the conversion of the Dunbar building to a home for the Laurel Police Department.

At the close of last year’s legislative session, the state saw its revenue forecast drop by $400 million as of June. This affected outcomes for two of Delaware’s major statewide funding sources, the non-profit funding pool known as “Grant in Aid (GIA)” and the Bond Bill, which supports capital projects throughout the state. 

During a Mayor and Council meeting in July 2020, Town Manager Jamie Smith said the blow to the Bond Bill funding dashed an opportunity for the town to receive a proposed $700,000 to support the upgrades to the Paul Laurence Dunbar school project. She said State Sen. Bryant Richardson and Rep. Tim Dukes had worked on the town’s behalf to get the funding to be part of this year’s Bond Bill distributions. 

“The prospects looked really positive when we started the process, but then COVID-19 hit and the funding just wasn’t there,” Smith said. 

Fast forward one year to July 2021, and the town was able to announce at a Mayor and Council meeting that it has received $750,000 from the state’s Bond Bill to be used on renovations at Dunbar.

Smith said the town will be meeting with engineers to discuss how the $750,000 will be used in the overall project construction work. “I won’t have details about what areas the funding will address until we have the opportunity to discuss,” she said. “However, it is my hope that this money will enable us to get enough work done to allow the police department to move into the building.”

The Dunbar building, located on West 7th Street, was transferred to the town by the Laurel School District in July 2018, after the district constructed new high, middle and elementary schools near Central Avenue.

The town secured the building, and in an effort to avoid demolition of the former school, has taken measures to bring it back into use. Early on, the Telamon Head Start program entered into a lease agreement with the town to operate three classrooms within the Dunbar building. The Telamon Corporation expressed interest in a location at Paul Dunbar as a way to enhance its presence in Sussex County. 

Telamon was also operating a 60-child Head Start program on Discount Land Road, in Laurel, and felt the school building would help reach a greater number of underserved families.  

As part of its agreement with the town, Telamon made a number of renovations to the building and installed new child-safe playground equipment and fencing around the property.  

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Telemon closed many of its operations in Delaware, including those in Laurel. Telemon’s operations were taken over by the First State Community Action Agency, a national non-profit that was developed to “fight the war on poverty.” The Agency has operated in Delaware for 55 years.

Smith said after a major delay caused by the pandemic, The First State Community Action Agency is beginning to develop its early education program at The Dunbar Community Center. “Children and Families First has started working back in the [Dunbar] building on a limited basis, and is working on schedules and timelines to get children back in the building,” she said.

Several months ago, the town subdivided a portion of the Dunbar property and sold six lots to a development contractor for $78,000 to help raise capital for the Dunbar project. 

Smith said a portion of the roof of the building where the police department is to be located had started to leak. She said that the land sale money, in combination with funds from a 2019 Bond Bill appropriation were used to address the roof work.

It was also announced recently that the town received a grant of $99,000 from the Chesapeake Bay Trust. The money will be used to make environmental improvements on the property including installation of bio retention pits to help control storm water runoff.

Laurel Mayor John Shwed said with the Bond Bill funding helping to address the necessary renovations to the Dunbar building, the last major part of the project that will need significant funding is in replacing the buildings heating and air system. He said there is no forecasted timeline for when the police department will be able to occupy the Dunbar building.