Putting the moves on Cheney Elementary

It's the last day of school, and about 30 kids and parents are celebrating in the pool of Kim LaFleur, a local activist whose son attends Cheney Elementary. The kids are swimming and jumping around in the rented Moonwalk while their parents sit on the patio eating pizza, drinking beer and trying to pry information from a visiting reporter about a burning issue they've heard almost nothing about.

"We just don't understand what's going on," says parent Georgia Wilson.

Cheney Elementary might be moving. Lisa Johansen, Cheney's PTA president, heard about the potential move only the day before and raised the alarm. Many other parents are still completely unaware.

Cheney was built in 1959 and sits on 19 acres off Forsythe Road, an Orange County area just east of State Road 436 dense with industrial development. The school is run-down and over-capacity, and when the Orange County School Board was pushing its half-cent sales tax last year, it promised parents that if the tax passed, their school would quickly get $5.8 million in repair money. In fact, that renovation is 11th on the school board's current to-do list.

Earlier this year, however, landowner Ben C. Willard petitioned Orange County to rezone 99.9 acres he owns off North Chickasaw Trail, about three miles away. Willard is seeking to turn his property, currently zoned half-agriculture and half single-family residential, into 154 homes, each with an estimated price tag of $180,000 to $250,000.

No doubt, the development will flood already jam-packed neighboring schools with more students -- county planners estimate 62 extra students, though that number seems extremely low -- but the county's Martinez Plan isn't a factor in this situation, at least not directly. The Martinez Plan was enacted in 1998 to block developments near overcrowded schools, but Willard secured the rights before it went into effect. Because of that, the development called Lake Jean almost certainly will be approved.

In addition, Willard has offered to sell the school board 14.5 acres at the north end of the proposed Lake Jean for a school site. One might think that the school board would use its half-cent tax whirlwind to build a new school there and alleviate congestion at nearby Arbor Ridge Elementary, Union Park Middle School and Colonial High School. But that's not in the picture.

Instead, school-board planners are considering selling the property that Cheney currently sits on and moving Cheney to Lake Jean. The machines are already in motion: On June 19, the county's planning and zoning department will consider Willard's rezoning request, which, from there, goes on to the county commission for final approval. Meanwhile, this week, the school board is analyzing the economic feasibility of moving Cheney. When the analysis is in and negotiations with Willard are complete, the school board will make its decision.

Money isn't the only factor involved in the discussions. Forsythe Road is being widened, and school-board member Joie Cadle worries about the safety of kids crossing a busy highway. And because the proposal is in its early stages, the school board feels no need to alert even Cheney's teachers, much less parents, about what's going on.

"If it affects the community, it needs to be brought up before the community," Johansen says.

It was -- to some degree, anyway. The county held a May 22 meeting at a local fire station to explain what was happening with Lake Jean. It was there that local parents first heard the school board's plan to move Cheney. (Though the county mailed out thousands of notices about the meeting, many parents say they never got one and heard about the proposal through the grapevine.)

Most of the concerns voiced over the Lake Jean conceptual plan are predictable. Neighbors say the roads can't bear the traffic as it is, the schools can't bear the children, and the county is blindly gutting what's left of natural Florida. A man at the May 22 meeting bemoaned the development because he liked to fish on Lake Jean -- not even realizing that he's been trespassing on private property.

While the county rezoning won't likely be stopped, parents still want to convince the school board to leave their school alone. Johansen, for instance, intentionally bought her home close to Cheney and doesn't like the thought of it moving even three miles away. Other parents have seen generations of family members attend Cheney and think of it as having historical value. Still others point out that Goldenrod Little League uses Cheney's baseball fields and wonder if the new, smaller Cheney would be able to accommodate the league.

Most of all, parents are upset that the school board promised them one thing to sell the sales tax back in September 2002 -- a new and improved Cheney -- and now they may not deliver.

"They're gutting our community," says LaFleur. "Without a school, you have no neighborhood -- it's like having no church. My fear is, if this goes through, we won't have much of an opportunity to discuss it. They should build their own little school over there, but don't yank Cheney out of the neighborhood."