Public Schools Construction Lifts
Community During Crisis
In the past several months, “right on schedule” is a phrase many of us have had to learn to live without. So many things were brought to a screeching halt in the first months of 2020, it’s hard to believe anything could have avoided the universal pause button created by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The construction continued by Orange County Public Schools, however, has proven the exception – and, in the process, has done its part to help keep the economy and local hopes afloat.
Starting in 2014 and planned through 2021, construction in the Orange County school district is projected to contribute $2.27 billion in total economic output within the county. The activity is especially visible in southwestern Orange County, which is seeing a boom in new home sales and an influx of new residents, creating a need for more schools.
Horizon West alone accounted for about half of all the residential construction permits issued in Orange County for the first seven months of 2020, just over 900. As of August, two high schools were in the middle of construction for 2021 openings and two elementary schools and a middle school were in design.
“Next year we’ll have those [high schools], and the following year two elementaries and a middle school. We just opened a middle school this past year and are opening two new middle schools by 2023,” said Pam Gould, District 4 representative and vice chair of the Orange County School Board. Horizon West Middle School opened in 2019 along with two elementary schools: Castleview and Water Spring. This year, Summerlake and Sunshine elementary schools opened in District 4. The next two middle schools are set to open in 2022 and 2023.
Since Gould joined the school board in 2012, the west Orange district has seen the opening of 11 schools in addition to those eight that are in the works. To the surprise of some, 2020 did not slow down the momentum.
“All those dollars are encumbered,” Gould explained, “so we were able to keep that construction going throughout the year. We don’t start a school until we know we have those dollars, and the schools we have in progress right now are doing a lot to help the community through these times.”
At the Helm
Gould has served as one of eight board members setting policy for the nation’s eighth-largest school district, which has more than 210,000 students. Board members serve four-year terms and earn about $45,000 a year.
The rapid residential growth that has contributed to the need for these new schools also created extra interest in the August 18 election for the District 4 seat Gould has held for two terms. Gould won 48.3% of the vote, falling shy of the 50% needed to retain her post. This means she faces a runoff in the November 3 election against Prince Brown, who brought in 30.9% of the vote. The third candidate, Danya Gaut, is out of the running but had secured 19.8% of the ballots cast.
Gould, who lives in Windermere, is the CEO of Shepherd’s Hope, a nonprofit that provides free health care to low-income residents who have no insurance. She has two adult sons who attended school in west Orange County.
Brown, who lives in Horizon West, is a public health advisor with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. He is also a former officer in the U.S. Navy, a youth football coach, and a school volunteer. His wife is a schoolteacher, and the couple have three children in Orange County public schools.
Brown says his priorities include allocating funding from the budget to update facilities. He is passionate about making sure there is enough school space to accommodate all of the families moving into the area.
“If I am elected, I will make sure that decisions are made for the best educational outcomes for our students, teachers and parents,” he said. “We will have smart growth to ensure that a quality educational experience is always at the forefront for our students. We will plan for students first when making construction decisions for OCPS.”
‘Success Begets Success’
The direct and indirect economic impact of the constant construction and attention to Orange County schools is immense today and is expected to continue well into the future. And in the wake of COVID-19, it is taking a new form.
“As with any other business, the better the school system, the more investors you see. And the quality of the buildings has a lot to do with this,” Gould said. “We’ve been able to renovate schools in need of restoration, and as we did, we saw more investors pop up, more volunteers, more philanthropy, more partnerships from businesses.
“This raises all boats,” she said. “Success begets success, but you have to have a way to launch that, and construction has been a huge way of doing that because you get a fresh start.”
Funneling money toward the growth and maintenance of public schools doesn’t just help the students — it helps the entire community. There are the more obvious impacts, such as the utilization of local vendors and an emphasis on patronizing diverse suppliers.
“When you think about it, everything you find in a grocery store you’re going to find in a school,” Gould said. “The same applies to hardware, furniture and school supply stores. The list really goes on and on. It touches almost every retail aspect you can think of.”
Then there are the jobs created. Construction, maintenance and staffing all require a robust team to keep things running smoothly, with the building projects supporting an average of 1,930 jobs per year.
And for every school that opens, more positions are created. Even when current staffers are given the opportunity to relocate to these new facilities, positions then need to be filled at the schools they’re leaving.
Beyond those immediately measurable impacts, the ripple effect continues. This might include costs many don’t immediately associate with building a school, like fertilizer for landscaping, but it extends even further into, as Gould puts it, “the fabric of the economy: its health, well-being and sense of community.”
Horizon West has been in the top five growth areas in the U.S. for several years, and the expansion of the school system shows no sign of slowing down.
The schools being built should reflect that growth, Brown said. “Our community has one of the highest growth rates in the nation, but unfortunately the focus has not been on smart growth,” he said. “We have known this growth has been coming for years, but our students and teachers are in overcrowded schools where the answer is just to add more portables.”
He said in an Orlando Sentinel interview, “The quality of Orange County schools is a big part of not only the desire to live in these areas, but also, from a general perspective of the quality of life, for that desire
to build a place to live, work and play.”
Gould pointed out that other west Orange communities are growing, too, including Sand Lake, Winter Garden and Ocoee. As high-quality schools near those areas bring new families to the district, Central Florida’s culture, business and community continue to thrive. Theme parks, restaurants and leisure activity businesses have expanded over the years to accommodate not only out-of-town visitors but also the locals.
“It’s amazing to see these new amenities pop up in such a small span of time,” Gould said. “Even our attractions benefit because people like to play at home.”
Room for Potential
A 2015 report from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that if all students in the U.S. could be brought up to basic mastery as defined by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) would increase by $32 trillion, or 14.6%. And while the impact of COVID-19 on future projects still remains to be seen, the possibilities these completed and in-progress projects hold for the students who will learn in them each day are expanding.
“I think this gives us a chance to look at education in a new way,” Gould said. “Are there other ways we can deliver adequately, consistently? There has never been a one-size-fits-all approach to education, although historically the system has tried to make it that way. We recognize that one set formula cannot empower every student to reach their full potential. Now we get to ask how much more flexibility we can put in, how the way we build our schools will be affected.”
Brown’s campaign website echoes a similar sentiment: “Absolutely everything the Orange County School Board does should be an investment that is ‘laser focused’ on giving the students and staff members of Orange County the very best opportunities for success in a safe and secure environment,” the site reads.
The physical structures reflect this attitude of adapting to fit the needs of the students. They’re built with an eye on what kinds of spaces work best for certain programs, from technical to vocational, from experiential learning to creative spaces for the arts. It’s about making the space come alive, making room for all the potential and possibilities these students bring to
Orange County’s new schools continue to be built in innovative ways that bring reliable income to the community, all while delivering a finished product. Inside and outside of their walls, these spaces are designed to expand to fit the potential of all students, to give them — and the community — room to grow.
“When you invest in a school, you invest in a healthy economy and a healthy community,” Gould said. “It becomes cyclical, because you’re also investing in great students who will become great leaders and great entrepreneurs.”