Winter Garden to Orange County Public Schools: No bus depot in our backyard!
Friday, February 18, 2022
“They talk about buses. They talk about buildings. But they didn’t say nothing about the safety of your children. They haven’t said anything about the people of Winter Garden." — Pastor Johnson, who attended Wednesday's community meeting about the proposed OCPS bus depot in East Winter Garden.
Orange County Public Schools (OCPS) officials came to the community meeting at the Orange Technical College-Westside in Winter Garden Wednesday night, ready to unveil their plan for repurposing the site as a bus depot once the vocational school moves to Ocoee in 2024. But they conceded a readiness to consider alternate locations in West Orange County, perhaps acknowledging the widespread unpopularity of their plan.
County school officials walked a fully packed meeting room through their proposal, explaining the bus depot would curb 309,096 “deadhead miles” a year — the miles a bus travels without students — and reduce diesel fuel use by 44,157 gallons. They also went through how the depot would be constructed, the jobs it would create and potential wages. They even talked about Drew High School, which had been on the site before the technical college, but failed to mention that Drew was a segregated school for Winter Garden’s Black students before it closed in 1969.
East Winter Garden residents listened politely. But, when it was their turn to speak, they pushed back hard. They said the plan demonstrated more concern for the buses than people. Residents talked about an exponential increase in traffic along two-lane Story Road and the pollution from the diesel-powered buses. One attendee, clad in a Class of ’63 Drew High t-shirt, called the bus depot “a continued assault on this community over here.”
“People in this area need something better than a bus depot,” said Ed Johnson, CEO and founder of .Johnson Global Ventures. Johnson grew up in the neighborhood and noted that his father got his first teaching job at Drew High School. He pointed out that hourly jobs won’t lift people out of poverty, but that new tech skills might.
“Since OCPS touts itself as the ninth largest school district in the nation and the fourth largest in Florida, you’re on Google and Apple’s radar,” said Johnson. “Why doesn’t this site become a location for you to partner with Apple and Google and all the tech companies and give the people in this area a sense of vision so they can become the next Charles Drew [who developed life-saving blood plasma preservation techniques]?”
When a man who identified himself only as Pastor Johnson took the mic, he was livid. “They didn’t say anything about your children! They didn’t say anything about your house! You can get $13 working at Winn Dixie!” he shouted. “They talk about buses. They talk about buildings. But they didn’t say nothing about the safety of your children. They haven’t said anything about the people of Winter Garden. One thing I’m gonna tell you, we got power. If they can’t do it [find another location], next year, we’ll vote for someone who can do it. And I betcha — and I’m not a betting man — none of them people on the board stay in Winter Garden.”
“Two hundred buses?” said the woman in the Class of ’63 Drew High shirt. “That’s a lot of exhaust fumes. A lot of gasoline smell.” She pointed out that bus drivers had their own cars, which would add to the traffic, and that there were curved parts of the road that would be difficult for a bus to navigate.
“And where will that lead them?” she ventured. “Right across my yard.”
Residents had several notable allies at the meeting. Orange County Commissioner Nicole Wilson, who represents District 1, which includes East Winter Garden, called the proposal a “textbook example of environmental injustice.”
The city of Winter Garden also supported the community, bringing eight officials: Mayor John Rees; District 3 Commissioner Mark Maciel, who represents East Winter Garden; District 2 Commissioner Ron Mueller; Community Development Director Stephen Pash; Community Economic Development Director Tanja Gerhartz; City Manager Jon Williams; Assistant City Manager Frank Gilbert; and Ed Williams, the city planning consultant.
Williams pointed out Winter Garden’s long-range plans for a $15 million revitalization of East Winter Garden. He told OCPS officials that he was “encouraged to hear the bus depot project was still in the planning stages and that there was still an opportunity to sit down and look at some alternative sites.”
“We made a promise to this neighborhood, and they are an important part of our city and we are one city and we stand in solidarity tonight in opposing the bus compound at this location,” said Williams.
“To put a large bus depot in this community is not the direction we want for our community and what these people deserve. They deserve better. We need to do better,” added Mueller.
After the meeting, District 7 Orange County School Board member Melissa Byrd told VoxPopuli she had anticipated the fiery blowback from residents. “I knew it was coming because two years ago when we first talked about moving this campus, they told me they were concerned about what was going to happen with the future of this campus.”
Byrd said she was “very optimistic” that they could find “some other place” for the bus depot, adding that she hoped for a “land swap deal” where OCPS might trade this site for another parcel of land owned by Orange County.
"I’ve got some prospects of some Orange County government property that might work, that would definitely work better than this property,” she said. “I would love to see Orange County come in here and turn this into a great community center that has business training for people that want to start businesses and youth activities for after school because the community really needs that stuff.”