Mayor Glenda Hood cried and got her way.
In an emotional, contentious City Council hearing Oct. 23, a charter school 11 years in the making took another step toward reality in the beleaguered Parramore neighborhood.
The tears came courtesy of Hood, who was apparently overcome by what she views as a monumental issue. After her emotional endorsement cut short council debate, a 6-1 vote gave school administrators the OK to open classes next fall in the city-run John H. Jackson Community Center. The temporary setup -- with room for 126 kids, and for which school administrators will pay the city just $1 per year -- comes as the city prepares to spend $4.5 million to build a permanent facility at the Downtown Recreation Facility. No construction date for that project is set.
Picking up a theme common to Orlando city politics, a group opposing the location of the school complained that the opinions of Parramore residents weren't being heard. They collected 650 signatures and spent three hours speaking against the plan without drawing any comment from council members.
The group doesn't oppose a charter school in Parramore. Rather, it didn't want the school to interrupt the daily programs at the Jackson Center, located on Westmoreland Avenue near the East-West Expressway. Members said they were angered that the city failed to hold public meetings to announce and discuss the school's location.
"We are appalled at the lack of the Parramore community's input in planning and decision-making on matters of this magnitude that affect our community," community activist Mercerdese Clark read from a prepared speech.
Critics couldn't help but think that Hood's tears were meant to head off opposition. "I don't think I've felt so strongly about anything in my whole life," the mayor said, her sudden burst surprising many in the audience.
Except for Hood's brief comments, there was no discussion among commissioners on whether the Nap Ford Community School should be the only one of six charter schools in the Orange County Public School system to be housed in a city-owned facility.
Those who spoke in favor -- Hood allies such as state Rep. Alzo Reddick, Orange County Commissioner Homer Hartage, a representative of CNL Bank, several directors of nonprofit agencies, city employees and several preachers -- based their support on emotional grounds, saying that schools are good and Parramore needs one. Only two parents who said they lived in Parramore endorsed it.
Commissioner Vicki Vargo was the lone opposing vote. She also voted last month against budgeting $2.2 million to begin remodeling the recreation center.
"I believe that Parramore would benefit from a charter school," she said after the meeting. "But timing is everything, and the timing isn't right. The school needs to be driven from the private sector or from Orange County Public Schools. I don't think it's a good idea to displace family programs from the Jackson Center."
Opponents stressed that crime is still too high in Parramore to have children walking to school. There were three murders in the last six weeks in the neighborhood. Additionally, very few children from Parramore will be allowed to attend the school, critics argue.
The local branch of the NAACP has a desegregation order against the school board that requires district schools to match the racial make-up of the county. The county is approximately 26 percent black. Parramore is 87 percent.
"We're giving the Center to a very select few who may or may not live in Parramore," Vargo added.
The Orange County School Board still must sign off on final approval of the charter school next month.