Newly elected Orange County school board member Kathleen "Kat" Gordon found herself in the middle of a full-court press last week as she considered whether to grant a new location to the Parramore charter school.
Mayor Glenda Hood called her to ask for support. Commissioner Daisy Lynum hugged her even though Lynum supported Gordon's opponent in last fall's election. The Sentinel wrote two pro-school editorials. And the city sent its top two lieutenants, Tom Kohler and Richard Levey, to impress upon Orange County School District officials how important the school was for Parramore, which is in Gordon's district.
But all Gordon wanted was proof that the ground on which the school would be built was safe for kids.
What she got from the city, she said, was a botched job. City leaders had opted not to conduct a soil test even though an environmental report had found traces of cyanide from a coal gasification plant that used to sit near the Livingston Street at Parramore Avenue site.
"How dare the city of Orlando not be concerned about the children and be concerned about the incurred cost associated with the soil," Gordon scolded at the May 17 school board meeting.
With Gordon leading the way, board members voted 6-1 to tentatively approve the site -- but only if the soil tests negative for carcinogens.
The lone dissenting vote, Bert Carrier, said he wanted tests done before he approved the site and was worried that a decade-old report was outdated. "My question is, if the report was done 10 years ago, what has the cyanide done since then? Has it leached toward the surface?"
Orlando officials say that's not possible. The cyanide can only leach downward, which wouldn't interfere with construction or the children's playground.
But school critics howled after learning that Public Works Deputy Director Tom Lothrop had asked Universal Environmental Services to omit recommendations in its report. Lothrop said he asked to remove the recommendations because they discussed groundwater problems 20 feet below the surface.
"My reputation is on the line, too," Lothrop said.
After the meeting, Lothrop said he wasn't trying to fast-track school construction, which must be approved for occupancy by July 14. Nor was he compromising the integrity of Universal executives, he said.
"If they felt I was asking them to do something wrong they'd say, ‘sorry, we can't take this job," Lothrop says. "I don't know too many [companies] that would."
Even so, school board members decided to bill the city for a soil test, which will cost an estimated $10,000.
By the end of the meeting, city leaders were oblivious to Gordon. They passed her without so much as nodding. Gordon, though, was animated, calling out to officials as they left. "All the city people just trot on by," she smiled.