Orange County Public Schools is the eighth-largest school district in the nation. As such, funding and quality of education are perpetual hot topics.
It’s part of the reason that OCPS hosts an annual State of the Schools address, inviting stakeholders and the community at large to converge and hear about OCPS’ accomplishments and goals.
The 2019 State of the Schools took place Friday, Sept. 13, at DoubleTree by Hilton next to Universal Orlando Resort. Superintendent Barbara Jenkins and School Board Chair Teresa Jacobs updated hundreds of attendees on the district’s status, what is new and what the future holds for students, staff and the community.
OCPS serves nearly 212,000 students in 199 schools, and Jenkins said this year, the district is expecting to add 3,700 more students — growth that could make OCPS the nation’s seventh-largest school district. But with growth, she said, comes growing pains.
“With growth comes challenges, the most obvious being the challenge of keeping up with the demand for new schools,” Jenkins said.
Orange County is one of the consistently fastest-growing counties in the state, Jacobs said, and that poses funding challenges. The local property tax is one of the primary resources of revenue the district relies on for capital projects such as building new schools and renovating or replacing older ones.
“Prior to 2008, the millage rate for that tax was set at 2 mills,” Jacobs said. “However, during the 2008 and 2009 legislative sessions, school districts were forced to reduce the rate to 1.5. That half-mill reduction equates to a loss of half a billion dollars for school construction and renovation in Orange County, alone.”
Jacobs added that OCPS has seen an enrollment increase equal to nearly three times more students in the last nine years than any other urban district in the state.
To keep up with this growth, Jenkins said, OCPS has been working with the Orange County Board of County Commissioners.
“In 2004, when Chair Jacobs was a county commissioner for the highest-growth district, she proposed a charter amendment that was overwhelmingly approved by the voters,” Jenkins said. “That charter amendment requires greater coordination between the county, cities and OCPS and also requires developers in areas where schools are overcrowded to pay a mitigation fee in addition to impact fees.”
Jenkins also addressed students and parents concerned about portable classrooms who are asking why the district can’t do better. She said the district could do better but needs more resources like the half-mill lost a decade ago. However, she credited the community for its continued support with the half-penny sales tax and the special millage.
“However, in spite of that loss, and in spite of an increase in enrollment of 22,000, we’ve still reduced portables by 50%,” Jenkins said. “While we have faced funding challenges at a state level, at a local level we’ve been incredibly fortunate to have the support of the voters.”
Jacobs expanded on another problem. For the last four years, the state has required OCPS and other districts to reduce the required local effort millage rate. These property taxes fund salaries and operations, and OCPS cites that reduction as one of the reasons why it cannot pay its teachers and staff more.
“We’re not where we want to be — yet — but we are clearly heading in the right direction,” Jacobs said. “But the single greatest challenge we face is insufficient funding to pay our teachers and classified employees a wage which honors the value they provide to our students.”
SAFETY AND SECURITY
Although OCPS cannot talk publicly about many of the safety measures in place for security reasons, Jenkins said the district has made significant strides in making its facilities more secure.
“While we have faced funding challenges at a state level, at a local level we’ve been incredibly fortunate to have the support of the voters.” — Superintendent Barbara Jenkins
“We’ve also met all the requirements set forth by the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act of 2018, including having a school resource officer at each school,” Jenkins said. “And we’ve partnered with the Sandy Hook Promise Foundation to implement a program that positively engages students in identifying threats of violence while proactively supporting students who may be in crisis.”
Additionally, the district has implemented more direct counseling services for students to assist with social, mental and emotional issues. All middle and high schools have a full-time SAFE coordinator, the district’s 20 traditional high schools now have a full-time social worker, and every elementary school has been allocated a full-time certified school counselor position. All OCPS employees throughout the district are receiving training to assist with identifying students who may need mental-health counseling.
“While our core business is educating young people, our highest priority is keeping them safe,” Jacobs said. “Just as we are highly focused on creating the safest physical environment, we are also working hard to create a safe emotional environment for all students, especially those facing a mental crisis or experiencing trauma.”