Winter Springs pushes to keep power in contentious school vote

In an increasingly uncommon unanimous decision, Winter Springs city commissioners voted Feb. 13 to try to keep city control over where public school students go to school. It’s a possible step forward for the county’s effort to coordinate seven cities, the school board and county-controlled areas under an interlocal agreement.

The interlocal agreement, in the works since 2019, has been left to the cities to vote on since 2021. A key element of the new proposed agreement is a requirement that only 88% of cities in the county would need to approve certain school related votes in order for them to pass. With seven cities in the county, that means a lone dissenting city could be overruled. 

Winter Springs has been the final holdout on the agreement which, among other functions, would determine how those governments handle how to evenly spread student populations across different schools.

The current agreement the county is operating under was put in place in 2008. Since then, the county’s population has risen by more than 50,000 residents, putting pressure on schools to avoid overcrowding, with Winter Springs feeling that pressure directly. 

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“Say Longwood starts building 8,000 apartment units; those students need to go to school somewhere, and they’ll continue pushing this way,” Winter Springs Mayor Kevin McCann said in a 2021 meeting when the issue was discussed, highlighting the city’s central geographical position in the county. Winter Springs borders three other cities in the county directly, and is within three miles of three other local high schools. 

In a 2021 City Commission meeting, Winter Springs Commissioner Ted Johnson called the 88% rule “a slap in our face,” believing that the rule was designed to circumvent Winter Springs’ vote.  

Pushing kids around

When a school is pushed over capacity, students are bused to the closest schools within what the county calls an “attendance zone.” Developers, when proposing a new residential development in the county, have to obtain a School Capacity Availability Letter of Determination, or SCALD letter, from the School Board, demonstrating that students living in the new development would have a place available for them in nearby schools. 

“Admittedly it has been the case that a SCALD has never been denied … but that is changing,” Seminole County School Board attorney Gregg Johnson told the school board in October of 2022. “We are trying to get ahead of the curve so that if and when population gets to a point where capacity is a big issue, we’re prepared.” 

Students living in new housing developments could potentially be bused to schools farther away. Currently, the 2008 agreement sets the maximum time a student can spend commuting on a school bus at 50 minutes for elementary school and 60 minutes for middle or high school. 

“I hate the idea of busing the kids to Timbuktu,” Johnson said at a Commission meeting on Feb. 13. 

A proposed apartment complex at the Oviedo Mall would require students to be bused to Winter Springs. 

Proposing solutions

At one point, in an attempt to avoid a direct confrontation, Winter Springs proposed that the city set itself apart with its own separate agreement with the county, which was rejected by the county. The 2008 agreement remains in effect until the new one is signed by all parties. 

At the Feb. 13 City Commission meeting, discussion turned contentious when it appeared Commissioner Victoria Colangelo wanted the city to sign the agreement with the 88% vote threshold intact, with Commissioner Rob Elliott asking her pointedly, “So you’re in favor of 7 of them being able to overrule a municipality?”

Commissioners ultimately voted 5-0 to send City Manager Shawn Boyle along with Seminole County Schools Superintendent Serita Beamon to try to negotiate with the county to raise the vote threshold up to a unanimous 100% vote. 

Boyle seemed confident that, with the help of Beamon, he could make headway with the county. 

“She’s well respected and I think she can assist in helping us achieve the 100%,” Boyle said.

Listen to the full Feb. 13 meeting here

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