School's still out

It looks like Mayor Glenda Hood's tears for a Parramore charter school were a tad premature.

The mayor's crying act came Oct. 23 as the City Council voted to allow administrators of the Nap Ford Community School to hold their start-up classes next fall in a city-run community center. As part of the agreement, the school also was given exclusive use of a playground, baseball field and basketball courts.

Last week, however, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection put the agreement between the school and city in limbo. State officials claim that in pledging the outdoor facilities for private use, the city reneged on a grant contract that required them to remain open to the public.

The state agency now is asking the city to reimburse the amount of the grant -- $100,000 -- or else build compatible facilities nearby, a much more costly option.

"We discourage school use of our elements," says Diane Langston, a state community assistance consultant. "There's other funding for school recreation uses."

What happens now? City Hall officials aren't sure. Board members of the city's Community and Youth Services Department, which has jurisdiction of the Jackson Community Center, weren't even aware when they met on Jan. 16 that the building was to be used as a school.

Board members were reluctant to take action, saying they were an advisory board and could not overturn a decision made by city commissioners. "I don't know what we can do about it," said Jim Holt, a member of the board.

City Commissioner Patty Sheehan was apologetic. "I think it is unfortunate that we got caught with our pants down," the District 4 commissioner said. "We should have known, and we didn't. ... The mayor's office will have to figure a way out of this one."

A spokeswoman for the mayor, Susan Blexrud, said the city would make a decision before the Feb. 11 deadline the state has imposed on Orlando. "We certainly need to act on this immediately," she said.

The city-school agreement was approved Oct. 23 with no debate from commissioners but plenty of opposition from residents. Led by neighborhood activist Mercerdese Clark, Parramore residents collected 650 signatures opposing the interruption of activities at the Jackson Center.

Opponents of the charter school -- who worry that crime is too high in Parramore and that the school was hastily thrown together -- have suggested that Hood became emotional at the meeting to ward off opposition to the school. It was rumored that several commissioners were prepared to vote against it. Only one, Vicki Vargo, did.

"I think [the tears] worked famously," says David van Gelder, a school opponent. "That woman doesn't cry over stuff like that. She had more reason to cry when she was kicked off the Orlando Aviation Authority."