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West Orange Times & Observer Wednesday, Mar. 18, 2015 4 years ago

OCPS, county near decision on relief school

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by: Zak Kerr Staff Writer/Reporter

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IF YOU GO

O.C. BOARD OF COUNTY COMMISSIONERS MEETING

WHEN: 9 a.m. April 7

WHERE: 201 S Rosalind Ave. Orlando

CONTACT: (407) 836-5426

TO SPEAK: Visit orangecountyfl.net/BoardofCommissioners/BoardAppearanceRequest.aspx#.VQgt3WTF9Hg.

TO WATCH: orangetvfl.net/watchlive.php (plug-in required)

WINTER GARDEN — Dozens of parents and students gathered at 6 p.m. March 12 in the West Orange High School cafeteria to hear an address on relief for the school, presented by Orange County Public Schools Board Chairman Bill Sublette.

Sublette thoroughly argued the site Orange County Public Schools officials most seek — the Beck Property in the West Windermere Rural Settlement — would best fit the needs of populations growing around it. His primary comparison was the site Orange County Public Schools owns on Seidel Road, where officials have permission to begin construction anytime.

“No doubt in my mind in the last year that one of the strategies has been to run out the clock,” Sublette said. “If (they) tie this up long enough, we’re eventually going to throw in the towel and go build at Seidel. That issue has come up about a half-dozen times at my School Board. Our board is committed to building at the best possible site. Our board is convinced and committed that is the Beck Property. We also believe we would not be able to save any time … by building at Seidel. It doesn’t have the necessary roads, utilities or infrastructure.”

Sublette shared an Orange County Public Schools map of current students and projected growth that indicated the Beck site would be closest to current growth, with the Seidel site causing a greater need to pay for bus transportation and extensive travel for all involved.

“If you look at 2024-25, you’ll see within a two-and-a-half-mile radius of the Beck site … easily, in my estimation, about 70% of the students, and only about 30% of the students … within two-and-a-half miles of the Seidel site,” Sublette said. “If you’re wondering why we’ve been so resistant to Seidel … building schools that are easily accessible is increasingly important in our society.”

Proponents of the Seidel site have said the School Board has neglected access on a micro level, with students crossing busy streets such as County Road 535, which students walking to the Beck site would have to cross.

NEGOTIATIONS AND PROCESS

For the Beck site, Sublette is certain that the court decision on the site allows construction of a school within reasonable conditions, such as road capacity, setbacks, buffers, noise control and lighting limitations, not the size of the school or style of architecture, he said.

“It’s come down to the siting of the stadium and the size of the school that’s keeping us apart,” he said. 

Even with those disagreements with members of the rural settlement, plans could progress if county commissioners and the School Board reach an agreement, he said.

Negotiations involving the School Board and county commissioner boards and rural settlement representatives Citizens United for Sensible Growth could have gone better in being more open to solutions on the site, and the School Board needs to learn from its mistakes while looking both at building vertically and buying larger parcels for future schools, Sublette said.

“We have an incredibly dysfunctional school siting process in the state of Florida,” Sublette said. 

This process includes permissions from county commissioners, following many zoning and land-use laws and costs of more than $90 million per high school, he said. Elementary schools would cost around $13 million and middle schools near $45 million, he said.

District 4 School Board Member Pam Gould and Sublette have said they would look at laws on schools to try to make high-school construction shift to meet growth demands.

GROWING PAINS

“People say we need to build two high schools out here at the same time,” Sublette said. “For us to do that, we would have to add a second high school on that … list. We’d then have to jump ahead of 10 to 13 other schools in desperate need of relief that have been waiting. Whether we build … on the Beck site or … Seidel Road site, we don’t have any funding to build a second relief high school for at least the next 10 years, and I don’t think probably for the next 14 or 15 years. So the decision on where we build the relief high school is a very important decision.”

By that time, it is likely a third relief high school in the area will be necessary, Sublette said. Despite neighbor counties Seminole and Lake losing student numbers during the recession peak between 2007 and 2009, Orange County grew by 2,000 students per year, he said.

“This year, we grew by over 4,000 students at Orange County Public Schools,” he said. “That means we grew by the equivalent this year alone of over four elementary schools or two-and-a-half middle schools or one-and-a-half high schools.”

A half-cent tax marked just for school construction still does not meet growth throughout the county, Subletter said, with many schools ahead of West Orange High School for relief and renovation, including some that have waited for about 50 years.

“In 2002 … we had 132 schools on that original renovation list,” Sublette said. “We got to school 94 before that money ran out.”

Sublette said a public hearing on the relief school would occur during the April 7 Board of County Commissioners meeting, when commissioners and the School Board hope to reach an agreement.

Contact Zak Kerr at [email protected].

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