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West Orange Times & Observer Tuesday, Sep. 4, 2018 2 weeks ago

OCPS holds information session regarding growth, new schools

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Orange County Public Schools officials hosted a live-stream town hall to share how it builds new schools.
by: Gabby Baquero News Editor

If you’re the parent of a child attending a public school in Orange County, you likely have some questions regarding the endless construction of relief schools.

After repeatedly receiving questions from OCPS parents inquiring about the process involved with building new schools, district officials hosted a two-hour town hall meeting Wednesday, Aug. 29, focusing on the six questions they receive most often.

District officials laid out in detail how it decides on when and where to build relief schools and the challenges they typically confront during the years-long process. Below are summaries of their explanations.

How does OCPS plan schools?

The first step involves the district’s Advance Planning Committee. The committee uses development data to predict and determine if, when, and where a new relief school will soon be needed to accommodate future growth, said Jessma Lambert, director of construction planning for OCPS.

These predictions then are used to create what is termed the 10-year Capital Improvement Plan — which is updated annually based on new student-enrollment data.

The CIP is essentially a school priority list that suggests which existing schools will soon need to be relieved. If the CIP is approved, the district’s Facilities Planning and Real Estate departments start the search for potential school sites.

How does OCPS decide which schools are built first?

Enrollment projections are essential in prioritizing which schools are built first, said Thomas Moore, a senior administrator and demographer for OCPS.

“Horizon West is part of a masterplan community where the school sites are in predetermined locations selected by the county and the developers back in the 1990s."

Moore explained the district uses what is called the Orange County School Enrollment Projection Model, which formulates rates using GIS technology based on a methodology that involves development, attendance and birth data, along with out-of-zone students.

“This tool helps us to determine the year at which the collective overage of the relieving schools will have enough enrollment to open the new school,” he said. “We cannot just use these numbers alone; we have to use the geographical analyses, too. Just because one overcrowded school might show an overage of 350 students doesn’t necessarily mean that we can relieve that school. … In an ideal world, we would just build all the planned schools at the same time and set up all the school zones at once, but as a result, we would have several schools with very low enrollment, which is not an efficient use of district resources. So, instead, in growing areas, we have to allow overcrowding to occur.”

How does OCPS decide where to locate schools?

In Horizon West, OCPS has limited input in selecting school sites, because there are already predetermined locations, said Laura Kelly, a staff attorney for OCPS who handles real-estate issues.

“Horizon West is part of a masterplan community where the school sites are in predetermined locations selected by the county and the developers back in the 1990s,” she said. “The plan includes 15 elementary-school sites, three middle-school sites and one high-school site. Oftentimes, the sites that were selected for schools are not necessarily what OCPS would have chosen.”

However, when it comes to the rest of the county, the district’s Real Estate Management Department considers several factors when determining where to locate a new school.

These factors, some of which carry more weight than others, include the site’s proximity to the student population, site availability and configuration, the surrounding road network, utility infrastructure, environmental concerns, existing and adjacent land uses, neighborhood support and budgetary constraints, Kelly said.

For the proposed 2018-19 CIP, OCPS either owns or has reserved 15 of the 20 school sites on the list, Kelly added. The remaining five sites are either under contract or in negotiations.

What approvals does OCPS need to build schools?

Once a school site is chosen, the district begins the process to obtain all the required local, state and federal approvals. OCPS is required to obtain the proper land-use and zoning designations for a proposed property.

According to Julie Salvo, a senior administrator in the Facilities Planning Department, schools have their own development standards, and any school-development proposal to a local government must address compatibility with the surrounding land uses, building heights, parcel sizes, site access, stormwater management, parking and traffic operations, among other things.

“As you can probably imagine, constructing a new school requires many layers of approval,” Salvo said. “First, we have to meet all local requirements. … And we are still required to obtain permits if we want to connect to the public infrastructure, such as roads and utilities.”

She added OCPS also needs to coordinate locally to ensure the provision of school resource officers and crossing guards — which are provided by either a city or county — and the implementation of pedestrian-safety measures, such as sidewalks in school zones.

The district also needs pre-approval from the state Department of Education for any new school-construction project, and must coordinate with the Water Management District and Florida Department of Environmental Protection if there are wetlands or an endangered species on a proposed school site. 

How are new schools funded?

Salvo said OCPS is fortunate because it has more funding resources to help build schools compared to other school districts in Florida.

Salvo said the district’s total budget for 2018-19 is $3.2 billion, of which one-third is the capital budget

The capital budget is what OCPS uses to build new schools and renovate existing schools. According to district documents, the 2018-19 proposed capital budget is $1.04 billion and includes funding for 10 new schools in the next five years — six of which are located in West Orange.

The capital budget is primarily funded via the half-penny sales tax, local property tax and impact fees, Salvo said. 

About 13% of the capital budget’s revenue comes from impact fees, which are paid by developers when they receive building permits to construct a new house. Mitigation payments, recalculated every two to four years, also help pay for new schools. These fees are additional developer contributions that complement the money OCPS receives from impact fees. 

In Orange County, if a proposed development with more than 10 units is to be constructed in an overcrowded school zone, the developer is required to pay mitigation.

What is the process for building a new school?

According to Lauren Roth, senior manager for facilities communication, parents often ask what determines school size and timeline for a new school project.

Lambert explained school sizes are based on a framework approved in 2003. Based on the framework, elementary schools should have an 830-student capacity; middle schools should have a 1,215-student capacity; K-8 schools should have a 1,200-student capacity; and high schools should have a 2,776-student capacity.

Following site acquirement, the district begins the planning process, which takes about 10 months, Lambert said. Then, the project goes through an eight- to 13-month design process, depending on the type of school, which is then followed by a construction period of about 12 to 24 months.

Throughout this process, OCPS holds community meetings with OCPS families to provide updates and and collect public feedback. 

OCPS also enlists its student enrollment department to plan on how best to rezone students. The process involves the collection of demographic data, community meetings, workshops and public hearings.

Gabby is the news editor for the West Orange Times and Windermere Observer newspapers. Have a story tip? Contact her at (352) 448-5856 or at [email protected]....

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