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West Orange Times & Observer Tuesday, Mar. 15, 2016 2 years ago

Charter Schools USA gets its way

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The Ocoee City Commission voted 4-1 in favor of a CSUSA school during a special March 15 meeting.
by: Zak Kerr Staff Writer/Reporter

OCOEE  This school year is the first for Kids Community College in Ocoee, but it is also the last for KCC as the newest Ocoee charter school.

The Ocoee City Commission made that official by a vote of 4-1 during its March 15 special meeting, held solely for a decision on Charter Schools USA’s proposal for a charter school on West Road, just east of Fountains West Shopping Center. Commissioners had voted March 1 to honor CSUSA officials’ request to delay this amendment to the Arbours at Crown Point PUD, based on a desire to see updated traffic data close to completion. That data varied from Ocoee’s traffic study, which indicated 3,433 trips for the PUD with the CSUSA plan, less than a maximum of 5,161 trips. The new CSUSA study showed 1,855 trips. City Planner Mike Rumer stressed the city study’s recommendation for a dedicated U-turn lane at the intersection of Ocoee-Apopka and West roads.

Conditions of approval included paying impact fees, three signal warrant analyses, paying for any necessary traffic light construction, building out a full road in the back, adding no commercial property and hiring police to direct traffic when necessary.

District 1 Commissioner John Grogan had hosted a community meeting Feb. 8 at Ocoee City Hall to allow representatives of Charter Schools USA and its development team to present their case.

“I voted no for the Kids Community College straight through,” Grogan said. “I was against that because of the location. ... There's no question that our kids need schools. We're lacking schools up there. Westyn Bay, when they were going in there, they were promised a school -- that's one of the reasons they all moved in there.”

But that was about nine years ago, Grogan said, with thousands more residences on the way in northern Ocoee. District 4 Commissioner Joel Keller elaborated on what he called a debt of two or three public schools Orange County Public Schools owed Ocoee.

"I've been in Sawmill for 26 years now," Keller said. "When I got into Sawmill, my wife was pregnant, and they said to us, 'By the time you have your child ... you'll have a school right there.' My daughter graduated college before that school was built. ... We approved a school on Ingram Road -- it never got built. I've heard the official reasons it never got built, and I've heard the unofficial reasons why it didn't get built; neither of those reasons are valid anymore. ... The Prairie Lake (Elementary) was supposed to be a relief school for Clarcona Elementary. A few months ago ... the School Board said, 'You know what, we changed our mind -- it isn't a relief school anymore. It's a replacement; we're not going to redo Clarcona Elementary.' ... And now, we really need a third school. Right now, they need to be giving us 3,300 seats, and I don't see that coming anytime soon."

CSUSA previously had received approval for a school at the northeast corner of the intersection of North Clarke and A.D. Mims roads, but its contract expired in October, which Keller said he had killed. He mentioned misgivings about the charter lottery process not giving Ocoee children preference over children elsewhere in Orange County, which the audience applauded.

Keller previously had reported commercials airing as early as January, in which parents were encouraged to register their children for Renaissance Charter School at Westyn Bay, opening in August 2016. A website, WestynBayCharter.org, also already had been active, all of which gave commissioners misgivings about CSUSA officials putting the cart before the horse. Commissioners said they had to reassure constituents nothing had been approved.

District 2 Commissioner Rosemary Wilsen — who did not want to delay action on this matter — voted against the school.

“I'm not opposed to charter schools,” Wilsen said. "I'm going to be voting on the best use of the property as it affects the residents of Ocoee and the future land use of the joint property on the (State Road) 429 corridor."

Mayor Rusty Johnson said he had changed his mind based on talking to residents in that vicinity. He reiterated displeasure with OCPS not delivering schools to Ocoee, as well as shifting zones that did not match the Ocoee community.

"It's about people wanting choice for their children," Johnson said. "More people from Westyn Bay wanted it than not."

District 3 Commissioner Angel de la Portilla, in his likely penultimate meeting as interim commissioner, voted for CSUSA’s plan. He said his family had moved to Ocoee because of great schools in the area, which he heard Westyn Bay residents reiterate.

"I think it can increase demand for rentals at (nearby) apartment complexes," de la Portilla said. "If you increase the demand for rentals, you increase value. If you increase value, you increase tax bases to the city, so the city can directly benefit."

Ocoee residents continued to express their differing opinions on the proposal.

Resident Aly Verdasco said a multitude of residents had expressed disapproval -- including at the March 1 meeting -- but could not attend this meeting. She said only one of five supporters of the school on Facebook were Ocoee residents, and some had no school-age children.

"I have a study that shows only 1.7% of public-school students will actually go to charter schools," Verdasco said. "The rest are pulled for private schools ... It's not going to affect our Orange County Public Schools system."

Representatives of nearby property owners -- including a local land-use expert working on the Tri-Cities visioning study -- said the site was not large enough to meet state standards of 15 acres for such a school and access looked torturous with sure safety issues. They said better sites were available and traffic congestion would adversely affect nearby property values.

Others reiterated their disdain for additional traffic near West Road. Developers said 100% of traffic would stack inside the CSUSA property, although an engineer disputed that and said pieces of the traffic report were underestimated.

Celebrated foster parent Ken Baer said a school in that area has been needed, and public schools have not adequately handled special-needs children, such as a daughter he adopted who got better care from KCC. Overcrowding in local public schools must be addressed, he said.

CSUSA representatives previously said construction could take just 23 weeks, based on using the same construction company for its schools. That would make a completion date of Aug. 23 if construction were to begin tomorrow, a result of eight days after Orange County Public Schools’ first day of the 2016-17 school year, but officials said construction would be completed in time.

The CSUSA school ultimately has a capacity of 1,145 students. Its first year will feature grades kindergarten through sixth, with seventh and eighth grades added as the original sixth graders progress.

Beyond KCC, Ocoee charter schools Hope and Legacy High received renewals from Orange County Public Schools March 8.

 

Contact Zak Kerr at [email protected].

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