Orange Co. charter proposal on schools overcrowding shot down

Orange County Charter Review Commission
But early support offered for new Orange County Ethics Commission

After Orange County School Board Chair Teresa Jacobs sharply criticized the proposal, a panel looking at revising the Orange County Charter killed an initiative Wednesday night that could have radically changed how the school district and local governments work together to address growth and overcrowded schools.

The proposed Orange County Charter amendment reworking school concurrency requirements, offered by Orange County Charter Review Commissioner Lee Steinhauer, died a silent and awkward death when no other commissioner would second his motion.

At the same meeting, the Charter Review Commission also moved forward on a proposal to create a county ethics commission. The two were among a handful of possible Orange County Charter amendments the commission is contemplating developing and putting before voters on the 2020 Orange County ballot, ranging from rivers protection to the makeup of the Orange County Board of Commissioners.

Left in its wake of Wednesday’s rejection of Steinhauer’s proposal was the reality that both Steinhauer and Jacobs agree upon — Orange County continues to struggle to build schools fast enough to keep up with the county’s rapid population and housing growth, and many schools, particularly in the southwestern region where Steinhauer lives, are chronically overcrowded.

“If there is a school that is that level of overcapacity. I find that to be, personally, unacceptable. And I’m sure the school board would agree with me,” Steinhauer said, after referencing some schools with enrollment levels approaching 200 percent of the buildings’ planned capacities.

It’s not as if Jacobs and two other school board members, Pam Gould and Melissa Byrd, who came to speak against his plan, disagreed with him on that point. But they expressed healthy mistrust in his approach, essentially charging it would be counter-productive.

The showdown Wednesday night was a bit of political gunfight between Steinhauer, a lawyer and lobbyist running for the Florida House of Representatives in House District 44, and Jacobs, a former Orange County Mayor. Steinhauer is running with schools overcrowding and growth among his key campaign issues. Jacobs has made them much of her political career.

Steinhauer’s proposal, which he conceded was an early draft in need of the kinds of discussion and revision that the commission could have provided over the next few months, would have required Orange County Public Schools to do something if any single school exceeded 120 percent of its planned enrollment capacity for two consecutive years.

However, it also would have essentially negated all the frameworks now in place for cooperative planning and input on growth between Orange County, Orange County Public Schools, and the cities and towns in Orange County, Jacobs charged.

It was on that point that Jacobs, backed up by Gould and Byrd and several Orange County Public Schools officials, essentially charged that the proposal would be a God-send for developers who’ve been frustrated by local governments’ attempts to control growth, and would lead the school district to struggle even more to build enough new schools to keep up.

This is an area of expertise for Jacobs, though she certainly has had opposition to some of her ideas and initiatives. It was school overcrowding and growth issues that essentially led her into politics. In 2004 she was the principal author of the county’s current charter language dealing with schools, growth, and concurrency. Then, through eight years on the Orange County Commission and another eight years as Orange County Mayor, Jacobs views were highly influential in county policies toward growth, schools, and concurrency.

It was under the 2004 charter amendment she pushed, plus the so-called “Martinez Doctrine”, named for Jacobs’ predecessor as Mayor, Mel Martinez, that the interlocal agreements between Orange County, Orange County Public Schools, and the various cities and towns including Orlando, Apopka, and Winter Park were drawn up and followed.

“It was working, but throughout the years it got watered down, it got watered down to the point where, what we have now, is a process where the school district almost always says yes [to growth proposals], they get very small amount of money compared to what they need to keep up with the growth. And then the development community continues to outpace it,” Jacobs said.

However, she, Byrd and Gould insisted progress is being made, evidenced by the fact that Orange County Schools have reduced the use of portable classrooms by 50 percent over the past 10 years. Jacobs expressed optimism that the day was coming where Orange County Schools would finally catch up to growth, especially if the Legislature can be convinced to reverse the reductions it made in 2010 and ’11 to the cap on school district taxes.

“The Steinhauer amendment, what would it do?” Jacobs challenged. “If we don’t have the money to build schools, what happens? It doesn’t slow down growth. It doesn’t speed up funding. It does the opposite. It reduces the amount of funding we’ll get in the future because it says we can’t enter into interlocal agreements anymore with Orange County. You know what that means? It means the charter amendment we have used the past 15 years … is annihilated.”

Scott Powers

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 [email protected].


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