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Van alarms, guardian reform, UCF money: Orange County lawmakers hear asks

Lawmakers back $18.4 million request for UCF improvements

Request for daycare van alarms, reform of Florida’s guardians program, and University of Central Florida money were among the top asks laid on Orange County’s Legislative Delegation Monday heading into the 2020 Session.

A lineup of government and elected officials laid fewer asks on the county’s members of the Florida Senate and House of Representatives than they might have in other years. Tthe early start to next year’s Session has led to an early Legislative Delegation meeting. The result: many governments had to say they’ve not yet worked out their priorities, but will get back to the lawmakers soon.

Two issues hot in the news lately, failures in Florida’s guardians’ program and children being forgotten behind in childcare vans, both leading to tragic deaths, drew some of the most urgent requests.

The former has been examined by an investigative series by the Orlando Sentinel. The latter has resulted in four deaths of toddlers this summer.

Democratic state Sen. Linda Stewart, who pushed a bill through the Senate last year to require occupancy alarms in daycare center vans only to see it die in the House, already has introduced Senate Bill 88 to try again in 2020. Democratic state Rep. Bruce Antone, who introduced the House counterpart last year, vowed Monday he’d be trying again.

Jeff Deen, regional counsel for the Office of Criminal Conflict & Civil Regional Counsel for Florida’s 5th District Court of Appeals, said his office is representing drivers who made horrible, tragic mistakes simply because they forgot to check the backs of vans. They need the technical assistance a simple alarm system would provide.

“I think your bill is a requirement now. It is not an option. It is a requirement,” Deen told Stewart, regarding SB 88. “This is a situation that is happening to normal people, not criminals. We have experts who say your brain just stops working sometimes. You don’t realize.

The paper checklists required now, he said, “don’t work. This is a tragedy that should not have to happen.”

The delegation meeting drew all 10 Democrats from Orange County, but the Republicans, state Reps. Rene Plasencia and Jennifer Sullivan, did not attend the morning meeting. Plasencia sent a representative for the morning session, and then arrived for the afternoon session. Sullivan said she alerted the delegation that she was seeking an excused absence because of a prior commitment.

Among the big asks, UCF President Thad Seymour sought and received a delegation commitment to back the university’s request for $18.4 million in additional funding this year to expand faculty for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics programs, and for additional student counseling across the board.

This comes as UCF hopes to emerge from the clamp-down it endured last year because it was undergoing scandal investigation during the 1919 Legislative Session. That had led to the hiring of Seymour as interim president.

Seymour also requested continued support for UCF’s Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Clinic, which serves veterans and first responders.

Orange County School Board Member Angie Gallo, backed by fellow Members Linda Kobert and Karen Castor Dentel, urged more emphasis on teacher salaries and other efforts to recruit and retain good staff.

Gallo said in particular the Orange County School Board would like to see the merit pay plan abolished, and cited Plasencia’s bill last year to do so. That bill failed.

They also led a discussion of frustration that the school board has no say in how Orange County charter schools operate. In particular, Gallo noted the nature of charter schools’ participation in the school resources officers safety program is up to the individual schools.

“Charter schools make their own decisions, including for safety,” Gallo said.

Democratic state Rep. Anna Eskamani then responded, “That lack of accountability is shocking.”

Valencia College Vice President James Galbraith made an unspecific pitch for more construction money for community colleges, particularly Valencia, after the Legislature provided none in 2019. Galbraith noted Valencia’s Lake Nona campus is rapidly growing, as is the future need. He projected 60,000 more enrolled students by 2030.

“Where do they go? That’s[the equivalent of] two of our west campuses,” Galbraith said. “We have to do everything we can to prepare.”

Apopka Mayor Bryan Nelson sought support, but no specific dollar amount yet, for a major storm water control project to avert flooding through the road system of northern Apopka and the region.

Maitland Mayor Dale McDonald pleaded for transportation money, particularly to address the current and worsening jams at Maitland Boulevard and Maitland Avenue. He also through in a plug for Nelson’s storm water control ask, calling it “a great project” for the region.

The once sleepy suburb has become a traffic crossroads for much of southern Seminole County and everything to the south along Interstate 4, putting Maitland, in his words, at the corner of “Main and Main.”

“Now, 1955 Maitland is gone, never to return. This century we need to begin to address those issues that make a difficult situation, and at least make it marginally better,” McDonald said.

Written By

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at scott@floridapolitics.com.

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