East Winter Garden group says "No!" to proposed school bus depot

Updated: Jan 23


“You just don’t put that in the center of someone’s neighborhood,” says Chloe Johnson-Brunson of the community advocacy group One Winter Garden.



OCPS bus depot at Orange Technical College westside campus
OCPS has a proposal to repurpose the Orange Technical College-Westside Campus into a bus depot when the school relocates in 2024. OCPS will host a meeting Feb. 16 at 6 p.m. on the campus to solicit community feedback.

On a recent Monday night, a dozen members of the community advocacy group One Winter Garden gathered in a back room at Gymnastics USA around one of those long tables where you’d typically see kids having birthday parties take a break from turning cartwheels to nosh on pizza and cake.


One of the top agenda items was a proposal from the Orange County Public Schools to build a bus depot for 100 school buses on the site of the Orange Technical College-Westside Campus once the school is relocated in 2024.


A community meeting where OCPS will present the proposal was coming up, and leaders of One Winter Garden, which is committed to improving the East Winter Garden area, wanted a big turnout from the community to oppose the depot — much the same way Tildenville residents turned out in October to help demonstrate Winter Garden's opposition to a Florida Department of Transportation plan to install a turnpike exit in their community. The 150 people who crowded Tanner Hall, with many speaking against that project, helped convince FDOT to rethink its plans.


Back at the Gymnastics USA back room, Eric DeBose, who is Black, suggested visiting neighborhood churches to harness an effective “souls to the polls” strategy to get the word out. There’s talk of printing flyers, creating social media posts, even going door-to-door if necessary to encourage neighbors to attend the meeting.


“It’s very important that OCPS take into consideration the concerns of all those East Winter Garden residents who will be impacted by this decision,” DeBose, a former detective with the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, told VoxPopuli via text message after the meeting. “To relocate the educational option and replace it with bus storage does not benefit the community at all.”


“We just don’t want that in our neighborhood,” said One Winter Garden vice president Chloe Johnson-Brunson, in an interview. Johnson-Brunson, who is Black, is also a member of Winter Garden’s Community Redevelopment Agency Advisory Board. “You just don’t put that in the center of someone’s neighborhood. It’s too close. It’s air pollution. It’s traffic control. It’s not safe.”

"If we don't show that we care for our community, then who will?"

(The community meeting with OCPS was supposed to take place Jan. 13, but, at the last minute, it was cancelled to comply with county Covid-19 restrictions on indoor gatherings. It will be held Feb. 16 at 6 p.m. at the Orange Technical College-Westside Campus.)


Adding insult to proverbial injury, the vocational college is built on the site of Drew High School, a one-time segregated school for Winter Garden's Black students that closed in 1968. Replacing that piece of East Winter Garden history with a bus depot is disrespectful, said Johnson-Brunson, adding that her grandparents attended Drew.


"If we don’t show that we care for our community, then who will?” she continued. “So, you have to come out and let your voice be heard and let’s say No! to this bus stop right in the heart of our community. We don’t need that there.”


“It’s typical of government to dump things they don’t want into low-income communities,” observed Austin Arthur, a local podcaster and co-owner of the Gymnastics USA, who was taking notes for an absent One Winter Garden secretary.


This isn’t the first time OCPS has tried to build this bus depot in East Winter Garden. When Maxey Elementary School moved into its new building on Story Road and Ninth Street, OCPS made a run at the former elementary school campus as a possible location, but Winter Garden city officials shut that plan down. City officials, who did not want to speak on the record, indicated that they are against this new plan as well.


"We're keeping an eye on it," said Commissioner Mark Maciel who represents District 3, which includes East Winter Garden.


OCPS bus depot in Pine Hills
If built, OCPS's proposed bus depot would look similar to this one in Pine Hills. Photo: Courtesy of OCPS

WANTED: SPACE FOR 100 BUSES

From OCPS’ standpoint, this is a numbers issue. Currently, only one bus depot, located in Pine Hills, serves all OCPS schools on the west side. Its proposal would divert 100 buses from 17 schools — including Lakeview and Ocoee middle schools and Ocoee and West Orange high schools as well as their feeder elementary schools — to the proposed bus depot in East Winter Garden.


“We really need a place to park and service school buses out there,” Lauren Roth, senior manager for facilities communication with OCPS, said in an interview. “Right now, the buses are driving to park every night in Pine Hills. It’s not the best use of taxpayer dollars, and it’s really bad for the environment to have to drive an empty bus all the way to Pine Hills and then drive it all the way back out to District 7 every day.”


Inside the maintenance bay at the Pine Hills bus depot. Photo: Courtesy of OCPS.

Roth said OCPS was “looking to build a brand new high-tech facility out there” that “would put jobs in the community.”


The community, at least according to those attending the One Winter Garden meeting, wasn’t having it. For them, the bus depot isn’t a numbers issue at all. It’s one more example of environmental racism.


A DISPROPORTIONATE HEALTH BURDEN

Air pollution is a leading environmental health risk, according to the air pollution research nonprofit Health Effects Institute, which issued a special report on the global state of air pollution in 2019. Air pollution is known to contribute to asthma, bronchitis, heart disease, stroke and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). It’s associated with low birth weight and preterm birth and impacts fetal brain development. The research shows that air pollution is linked to diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease. Annually, air pollution claims about 100,000 lives in the United States, according to a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


This health burden falls disproportionately on Black, Hispanic and low-income communities. Coincidentally or not, both Pine Hills and East Winter Garden — where one bus depot already exists and the other is being planned — are majority Black communities.

People of color are more than three times more likely to breathe polluted air than white people.

America has a long history of deliberately situating highways, industrial plants and, yes, bus depots, some of the main causes of pollution, in and around majority Black and Hispanic neighborhoods. Winter Garden’s own industrial area — home to Titan America’s ready-mix concrete plant — is located in East Winter Garden.


That’s one reason people of color are more than three times more likely to breathe polluted air than white people, according to the American Lung Association’s 2021 “State of the Air” report. And why Black people are 40 percent more likely to have asthma and three times more likely to die of an asthma-related condition than white people, according to the Office of Minority Health.


By far, the deadliest component of air pollution is fine particulate matter that measures 2.5 micrometers or smaller, many times narrower than the thickness of a human hair. Fine particulate matter is readily inhaled, embeds deep in the lungs and the heart and passes into the bloodstream. A landmark 2021 study, conducted by researchers at five universities and published in the journal Science Advances, found that Black people are exposed to 21 percent more fine particulate matter than average Americans, while Hispanics are exposed to 11 percent more. White people are exposed to 8 percent less.


Recently, a working paper from the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago found that extra diesel pollution from a single car was enough to lead to an 8 percent increase in children’s emergency room visits for asthma and a 2 percent increase in babies born at low birth weight. Black children are already five times more likely to visit the emergency room for asthma while Black expectant moms are three to five times more likely to give birth to a baby at low birth weight than a white mom.


That data is based on one car. OCPS is planning for 100 school buses.


“OCPS would never put that bus compound across the street from million-dollar homes,” noted the Gymnastics USA co-owner Arthur in a text message. “But across the street from low-income people in East Winter Garden, they apparently see no issue.”



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