A joint workshop held Tuesday between Osceola County Commissioners and School Board members on school capacity may end up smoothing the way for new residential development in the county.
The School District of Osceola County invited county commissioners to the session to set their collective minds at ease over the pending school capacity challenges. Rhonda Blake, director of planning for the school district, told commissioners they anticipate over 10,000 new students in the next five years, based on residential developments that are in active construction or in the final permitting stages. Using those projections, and new simplified mapping system, three geographic districts are expected to be over capacity within three years.
And that’s perfectly OK.
Board Chairman Clarence Thacker explained that the county made the choice to adopt the highest school impact fees in the state of Florida. That means the district will have the money to build new schools or classroom additions to accommodate new development.
“Our economy, good, bad or indifferent, is heavily dependent on new growth,” School Board Member Tim Weisheyer said. “If you start thinking if we slow down growth we’re helping out the school board, it’s actually the opposite. You’re taking away our primary funding source.”
It was a game-changer for commissioners who said they constantly hear complaints from parents about allowing new development in areas where the schools are at or near capacity. At issue is the school capacity report that’s attached to each residential Preliminary Subdivision Plan. The district is changing how it reports and tracks capacity, switching from individual schools to 10 larger planning areas. Blake even suggested the district hold off on issuing any new school capacity reports until Nov. 1, except for projects of more than 750 dwelling units.
“That’s about the point where we start to ask developers to dedicate land for a school site,” she said.
The number of new home permits also doesn’t necessarily translate into new public school students because one in five Osceola children attend charter schools. Those charter schools actually function as relief schools in high-growth areas like the Narcoossee corridor, where three new charter schools have a combined 1,800 available seats.
Blake assured the commissioners that her staff has the ability to put a project on hold – and has done so – if the developer doesn’t mitigate for the school capacity. The key was getting county commissioners not to panic when they get a report with a bright red box that indicates a location will be over capacity and instead focus on the comments section that explains how the project will mitigate the impact.
“When something is red and it’s over capacity, it doesn’t mean we’re in a dire situation, necessarily,” Thacker said. “It may mean we need to add four new portables. It may mean we need to redistrict, or it may mean we need a new school.”
The district currently has five new construction projects funded in its Five Year Capital Improvement Plan. Those include new K-5 schools in Celebration (2021) and Old Hickory (2023), a K-8 school in Kindred (2022), a new classroom wing at Poinciana High School (2020) and space reconfiguration at Liberty High School (2020).
Using the new planning areas, the school district identified three areas of concern.
Those include study areas 5 and 9, which includes St. Cloud, the Narcoossee corridor, Jones Road, Center Lake Ranch and Sunbridge. Blake said the district already has developer agreements in place with Kindred, Tohoqua, Sunbridge and Center Lake Ranch for new school sites.
The West Osceola/I-4 corridor study area (planning area 1, will see some relief with the projected opening of the new Celebration K-5 school in 2021. But it’s projected to be over capacity for middle and high schools by 2023 based on the number of approved residential and multifamily permits for the area.
“We are looking for dedicated school sites, especially on the west side,” Blake said. “The undeveloped land is all Tourist Commercial, which makes it too expensive.”
The land costs are also proving to be an issue in some of the larger mixed-use developments, like Edgewater. Blake asked commissioners to consider revising the Land Development Code as it relates to school siting, especially for high schools.
“Developers don’t want us to put a high school in the middle of their urban center,” she said. “They’re rather it be commercial."
Blake also asked the county to step in and assist the district by requiring developers of smaller projects to work cooperatively on school mitigation. The district doesn’t ask for a school site unless the subdivision has over 750 dwelling units, but in some pockets – like on Jones Road – the county has approved several smaller, adjacent subdivisions each with less than 600 homes.
The workshop was a revelation for Commissioner Brandon Arrington, who thanked the school board for educating the commissioners on the topic. “I did not understand your calculations, your formulas or your mindset,” he said. “What I understand now is you feel good that you can cover any new school creation no matter what development takes place.”