Orange County Public Schools is forever behind the curve when it comes to providing enough educational facilities to comfortably house all the students moving to and living in Central Florida. It doesn’t take long for newly built schools to become overcrowded, and then OCPS officials are looking for more land to purchase.
West Orange County has a number of schools on the list for renovations and overcrowding relief, and OCPS is tackling the issues one at a time.
In August, Orange County residents voted in favor of extending the half-cent sales tax for 10 years.
This will produce billions of dollars for building and renovating schools.
“It will allow the district to complete the original list of 136 schools identified in 2002 as needing renovation or replacement,” said Kathy Putnam, senior manager of communications for OCPS Facilities. “It will allow renovation of other schools more recently identified as needing renovation; funding technology in schools; and fund capital renewal to schools as needed.”
There has been a steady decline in portable classrooms thanks to the half-cent sales tax approved in 2002. Nearly 24% of OCPS students attend class in portables, and that number is anticipated to drop to 13% by the 2018-19 school year. Since 2006, the number of portables has dropped from 4,337 to 2,493.
The continuation of the half-cent sales tax is estimated to bring in $2.1 billion in the next decade.
In a presentation to the Orange County School Board on Dec. 16, Basem Ghneim, program manager of facilities, shared a list of 16 relief schools for fiscal years 2014-2024, six of which are in West Orange County. There are two high schools planned to relieve overcrowding at West Orange and Dr. Phillips, scheduled to open in 2017 and 2024, respectively; a middle school for the Bridgewater area of Horizon West, slated to open in 2020; and two elementary schools, near Sunset Park Elementary and in the area of Summerport and Independence.
The Sunset Park relief school will be in the Lakeside Village area west of Reams Road and south of Winter Garden-Vineland Road. It is scheduled to open in August 2016.
The Summerport/Independence area relief school, at 6255 New Independence Parkway in Winter Garden, is currently under construction and will have a student capacity of 832. It will relieve overcrowding at Keene’s Crossing and Sunset Park elementaries. The $16.2 million project has a completion date of June 2015. It will be a secure campus with one public entrance, a two-story school building and the latest classroom technology.
MetroWest Elementary also is getting a relief school, but it will be an additional school built on the same site as the current school. Putnam said the two facilities could possibly share efficiencies, such as the cafeteria and central energy plant — similar to the layout of SunRidge Elementary and SunRidge Middle schools. She also speculated that students could be divided into kindergarten through second grade and third through fifth grade at the two schools. It is scheduled to open in August 2017.
Another elementary school is planned in the Summerlake area of Horizon West. Located south of Lake Hancock, the school is expected to open in 2017.
Work has started on the Lake Whitney Elementary refurbishment project. When completed in the fall, the school’s electrical, plumbing and air-conditioning systems will all be upgraded. The interior is getting new flooring, paint and furniture. The $11.5 million project also includes the newest classroom technology and renovation or replacement of the administration office, classrooms, multipurpose/cafeteria, media center, kitchen, labs and outdoor activities areas. The parking lot and student drop-off loop are being expanded, as well.
By spring, the final phase of the $66.6 million renovation of Dr. Phillips High School should be completed. Work is underway on the media center and vocational and language arts buildings. The project has included renovation or replacement of the administration office, classrooms, kitchen and cafeteria, labs, gymnasium and covered walkways; expansion of the Performing Arts Center and student drop-off loop; and updated technology in the classrooms, including new computers and digital projectors. Portable classrooms used during the renovation of other classroom buildings will be removed. The school has a student capacity of 2,866.
William R. Frangus Elementary, which has a modular design, will be renovated, and the new facility should open in August 2018.
Chain of Lakes Middle will undergo a facelift, as well. As part of a functional equity project, the school will be brought up to standard with other middle schools in the district with regard to core buildings, cafeteria and auditorium, Putnam said. It is slated for completion in August 2018.
West Orange High School, in Winter Garden, is overcrowded. The school — which serves Winter Garden, Oakland, Gotha and parts of Windermere and Ocoee — was built with a capacity of 2,776 and has a student body of 3,873. There are 1,100 freshmen, and District 4 School Board Member Pam Gould estimates that number will increase to 1,250 next year and 1,500 the following year — making a relief school necessary immediately.
In 2004 and 2006, Orange County Public Schools paid a combined $7 million for two segments of a 65-acre piece of land, known as the Beck Property, near the intersection of Winter Garden Vineland Road (County Road 535) and Ficquette Road. A relief high school was to be built on this site. However, the land lies in the West Windermere Rural Settlement, and many nearby residents, as well as members of the Orange County Board of Commissioners, have vehemently objected to a high school being put there. Homes are limited to one per acre in rural settlements.
A second piece of land, called North of Alberts, encompasses 116 acres and has been reserved for a middle school and high school. It is owned by the family of former County Commissioner Fran Pignone and is located in the master-planned community of Horizon West. OCPS officials estimate it would have to spend $20 million on this site.
Nearly a year ago, Orange County’s commissioners and School Board members came together in a rare joint meeting to try to come to an agreement. Representatives on both sides were given time to speak. No vote was taken at the meeting,. After many hours of discussion and debate, the meeting ended with the understanding that both sides would appoint negotiators to work together to pursue the two site options.
Mediation discussions, as well as meetings with staff members and the community, continued throughout the year.
A timeline on an Orange County Government Board of Commissioners website dedicated to the topic of the West Orange Relief High School indicates the current status is this: “Final decision remains in the hands of Orange County Public Schools and the judicial system.”
Gould said the School Board is ready to proceed with design and construction of the new high school.
“However, because the application for a special exception in the rural settlement was denied by the County Commission, the School Board has sought relief in the courts to appeal that determination,” she said.
A court hearing with a three-judge panel was held Dec. 22, and both sides are still waiting on a ruling.
There are two pending lawsuits, Gould said, and one of them is heading toward a hearing on Monday.
“While it is unlikely that the judge will issue a decision on Monday, it is possible that a ruling will be issued soon thereafter, within a month or possibly less,” she said. “That determination will either adversely impact the district and require further consideration, or it will be a favorable opinion, which could help result in a final resolution of this matter.”
She said the other lawsuit is still pending and a resolution is not expected until early spring.
A decision must be made soon if a relief high school is to be ready by 2017, Putnam said.
This most likely will be a temporary solution to the area’s overcrowded high school conditions.
Based on future growth projects, Gould said, West Orange High will need two relief schools, and Dr. Phillips High will need one.