Opponents of the Orange County School Board’s plan to move the dilapidated Maynard Evans High School from its current location on Silver Star Road to a new spot four miles away, just outside the city limits of Ocoee, voice many objections. They worry about increased noise and traffic. They cite “safety concerns” related to new students trespassing on their property. They don’t like the land the school board picked out. They say the school board will disrupt their peaceful rural utopia. They say their property values could plummet.
But they insist that their opposition has nothing to do with the fact that 84 percent of Evans’ students are black, while 82 percent of Ocoee’s population is white. As the website www.stopevansmove.org puts it: “Some people have painted this as a racist issue – it makes for scandalous headlines and stirs anger. It is absolutely not an issue of racism. It’s not racist to want to maintain the peace and quiet of your home and it’s not racist to want the best education possible for your kids. Many people moved to Clarcona/Ocoee to ensure that their kids would be enrolled in better schools.”
School board member Anne Geiger, who represents Evans High School, doesn’t buy that explanation. “I think there are some troubling undertones,” she says. “It’s 2008 and we need to move forward. We can’t live in the past.”
Regardless of underlying motives, race is very much at play here. If nothing else, it has something to do with the way the school board allowed Evans to deteriorate after court-ordered integration in the 1970s. “White flight” to the suburbs took hold, and minorities moved in. Now 50 years old, Evans is long overdue for renovations. Mold and security have been problematic. Fences are rusty and buildings old and decrepit.
In the summer of 2006, the district announced plans to move Evans to a lot next to the school’s ninth grade center in Clarcona, a rural area just outside Ocoee. Tension mounted almost immediately. Only 7 percent of Ocoee residents are black, according to the 2000 U.S. Census.
It’s not just the school’s relocation that has Ocoee residents worried. They also fear that, afterward, the district will rezone the area, meaning that some students who now attend Ocoee High School would transfer to Evans and vice versa. Currently, 40 percent of Ocoee High School’s students are black. A rezoning could change that significantly.
Among them is Ocoee Mayor Scott Vandergrift: “I’m the mayor of Ocoee. I don’t know why I’m not a bigot, but I’m not.”
Vandergrift believes that the school board wants to relocate Evans to “overcome educational problems. … Racial tension is just not there. They’re trying to take it out of the ‘F’ category by rezoning it,” he says. Evans has received an F rating from the state four times in the last six years, and a D rating the other two years. “If `school board members` vote to do this I don’t think the people will let them in.”
Asked about the nature of his “safety concerns,” Vandergrift says that many convenience stores near Evans’ ninth grade center already have had to demand that no more than two students at a time are allowed in for safety reasons: “When `Evans` children come out of school, it’s like giant ants that roam all over the place.”
Not everyone who disagrees with the plan comes from Ocoee. William Burrell, a Pine Hills resident whose son recently graduated from Evans, says Evans students would benefit from staying “where they are wanted” in Pine Hills and worries about them being subjected to racism in their new location. (Burrell contributes to www.stopevansmove.org.)
“`Ocoee High School` will be rezoned and that will create racial tensions,” Burrell says. “There would be too much tension. I’d like to believe that America has grown beyond its past, but it hasn’t. Some young kids would say: ‘Why do we have to go to school with those people?’”
This isn’t Evans’ first run-in with racial tension. Last year, the school board told College Park families that their students would have to transfer to Evans while Edgewater High School was under construction. Many of the parents protested. Some threatened to put their kids in private school. In November, the school board relented. The school board won’t confirm that rezoning will take place after Evans moves, but Geiger and others have mentioned it as a possibility.
School board member Kat Gordon says there’s no need to rezone, even though a lot of the school’s top students have opted to go to other schools with more advanced educational programs. Also, under the state’s education plan, students in low-performing schools like Evans are allowed to transfer to other, better schools. Adding magnet and International Baccalaureate programs would bring those students back – which Evans needs to do, she says. Right now, it has the capacity for 2,045 students at its main campus, but only 1,223 attend.
Orange County commissioners must approve the school’s relocation at a Feb. 19 meeting before it’s a done deal. The Orange County Commission first took the issue up three months ago, but postponed a decision after the move’s controversy became evident.
Still, only commissioner Fred Brummer, who represents Evans as well as the ninth grade center, seemed hesitant to approve the relocation. Approval seems likely.
Commissioner Bill Segal supports moving Evans near Ocoee “because it’s probably the only place that made sense,” he says. “I don’t want to substitute my judgment for `the school board’s`. I try not to second-guess their decisions. We’re running out of perfect places in the county.”firstname.lastname@example.org