Lessons to learn

The fight to temporarily house a Parramore charter school in a city-owned recreation center has come to an anticlimactic halt. Because of restrictions from a state agency, the Nap Ford Community School won't be able to use the John J. Jackson Center until at least October -- well after the school year begins in August.

City officials were hoping to receive a waiver from the state Department of Environmental Protection, which provided the city with a $100,000 grant that stipulated that the Jackson Center must remain open to the public for recreation purposes. The process of getting the waiver -- particularly if it is contested -- will take months to resolve, according to Suzanne Brantley, an Environmental Protection Agency attorney.

In addition, the city must overcome a similar agreement with the National Park Service. That $249,999 agreement, signed in 1991, requires that the city compensate visitors to the Jackson Center with an "equal or greater" facility before the rec center can be converted to a school.

That conversion could take as little as two weeks, according to Edwolyn Dooley-Higgins, who oversees the Park Service grants. But two weeks is an unlikely time frame. City officials probably won't find a facility any time soon to house a weight room or provide twice-weekly senior programs. After all, if the city had such a facility available, it wouldn't be scrambling to find a temporary building for the school.

What's worse is that city officials appear to be unaware that the Jackson Center won't be available for the school year. They also have no back-up plan. "We have a plan A," says Walter Hawkins, the city's director of Community and Youth Services, which oversees the city's 14 recreation centers. "We don't have a plan B or C."

That city officials are behind the curve again is no surprise. Ever since the charter school became a contentious issue last spring [Class Action, April 20, 2000], a number of errors have been committed by city and charter school officials as well as by the Parramore Heritage Renovation Foundation, the city-sponsored nonprofit that helped with the charter application.

For example, school officials submitted a budget that included an item noting that CIBC National Bank would donate $1 million over five years to the school, when in reality the bank would provide only $25,000 in computers and technological services.

And the Orlando City Council voted 6-1 to allow the school use of the Jackson Center without checking whether anything (such as the grants) prohibited the use of the rec center. Several months later, Mayor Glenda Hood announced the state would waive its grant when, in fact, there is a lengthy process involved.

But the main question that continues to plague the school is who is it being built for. School opponents say that the city is building it for the children of city employees and other non-Parramore residents. "A lot of people are saying that the people who are going to put their kids in this school are commuters," says Doug Head, head of the Orange County Democratic Party.

That criticism has been fueled somewhat by the continued lack of support in public forums from parents who will send children to the school.

Last October the Orlando City Council met to provide final approval of the Jackson Center while the school's permanent site is built adjacent to the city's West Livingston Street recreation center. Five people, who had collected a petition of 650 signatures, spoke in opposition to the Jackson Center site. Twenty-one people spoke in support. But those 21 consisted of public officials, city employees, businessmen or heads of nonprofit organizations that receive grants or loans from the city. Those 21 speakers, none of whom lived in Parramore (one speaker came from as far away as Windemere), said they endorse the school for a number of reasons: they have ties to school administrators or they do business in Parramore.

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"I can tell you no one asked me to speak at the meeting," says County Commissioner Homer Hartage, whose district includes Parramore.

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But to school opponents, who are willing to endorse a school in Parramore after the crime is cleaned up, the opposition was orchestrated by the Hood administration to thwart their petition drive, in effect subverting the democratic process.

"I remember the sick feeling I had when I recognized that citizens who really cared were outnumbered by city officials and friends of city officials brought there to put on a show," says Phil Cowherd, a Parramore property owner.

What is particularly galling to school opponents is that city officials make a lot of commotion when it appears that issues in other neighborhoods become tainted by outsiders. But not when it comes to Parramore and the charter school issue.

For instance, at the April 16 council meeting, Commissioner Daisy Lynum, a fierce school supporter, pointed out how displeased she was to learn that neighbors from differing parts of the city were surveyed together for a city-sponsored tandem-housing poll.

"I have serious problems when folks live in one neighborhood and go to another 10 miles away and voice a vote," she said. "They don't live there. They have nothing to do with [the issue]. It's confusing. [And] it creates conflict."

Lynum, though, says the 21 speakers, plus another 40 who didn't speak, were more credible than school opponents, some of whom don't live in Parramore. "They all have motives," Lynum says. "I don't have motives. I don't have any children that will go there, but I will have grandchildren who will go."

Even so, school opponents are still wondering why few parents bothered to publicly endorse the school. "Many of them couldn't show up because they work during the day," says Julia Lemon, executive director of the Enterprise Foundation, a nonprofit that helps other nonprofits build low-income housing.

But school opponents don't believe Lemon's assessment. "That's bullcrap," says Mercerdese Clark, a school opponent who has worked with Lemon on a number of issues.

"It's not just Clark who has noticed. After no parents spoke at the final meeting of the charter school at the Orange County School Board," board member Linda Sutherland remarked, "It seems to me that [supporters] knew we had concerns about the people who lived there and wanted to go to school there. They could have brought at least one parent."

School opponents believe they have been vindicated somewhat because rumors have been swirling that the school doesn't appear to have any students registered for the fall term. The school's principal, Jeraldine Perkins, has vowed that the Nap Ford School will have 126 students, its expected capacity, by school's opening. But she won't release enrollment figures until July.

"Why is that such a secret?" asks Clark, the school opponent who lives several blocks from the Jackson Center. Clark says when the student numbers are released, many observers will be curious where they reside. "Who are these people and where do they live now?"

School supporters typically base their endorsement of the school on emotional grounds. They point out that Parramore children attend eight different elementary schools. The kids never get a chance to bond together, supporters argue, because they're shipped off at an early age.

But some political observers question whether some city officials truly have the interest of children at heart. They say the school has become political, with Commissioner Lynum and Mayor Glenda Hood trying to win support by building the school and giving it the name of a late city commissioner, Nap Ford.

In Hood's case, the theory is that she's behind the school because she attacked Bruce Gordy as a racist in their campaign for mayor last year. Since Hood didn't want to leave herself open to the same attack, she jumped on board as a school proponent. To show she was credible on the issue, she cried after the vote last year that allowed use of the Jackson Center.

Nonsense, says Lynum. "This isn't about Hood or Gordy. This is about a school for black kids."

Additionally, the Hood administration made sure to include the Nap Ford school in a presentation to downtown business leaders. (Would a school planned for Rosemont receive the same attention? It's doubtful.)

"To me it looks like a symbolic gesture that gets to be controversial because it's not real," says Head, who argues that city leaders would better serve the black community if it annexed black neighborhoods at the same rate as white.

As for Lynum, school opponents say that she's desperate to build the school this year so she can point to it during her re-election campaign next spring. "If the school isn't open, how will she be able to brag about it?" wonders David van Gelder, a Parramore resident and school opponent.

Meanwhile, a number of private firms, such as Edison Schools, could have provided a Parramore school without finding many obstacles in the political arena. After all, many school critics began scrutinizing the school when they discovered the Parramore Heritage Renovation Foundation had become involved. Parramore Heritage is a nonprofit organization endorsed by Hood that has drawn the suspicion of many people in the African-American community.

"I doubt seriously we would have had this many problems if the city weren't involved," says the Rev. Randolph Bracy, a school supporter. "The city of Orlando politics [together] with the Parramore Heritage Renovation Foundation made this issue, this whole proposal, a lot more than it is."

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