BARTOW – If a group of four Poinciana residents and community activists felt they had reason to be optimistic on Tuesday, as they made a passionate plea for new schools to be built on the Polk County side of Poinciana, they felt certain they had conquered the most critical issue: money.
“It doesn’t cost them anything,” said Wendy Farrell, one of four members of the nonprofit organization Poinciana Economic Development Alliance, which brought its case directly to the school board for more schools being built on the Polk County side of Poinciana, which has 32,000 residents and 12,000 students.
They felt they had a winning proposal by a private charter school company, Somerset Academy of South Florida, to construct a K-8 school in Poinciana, with Somerset covering the entire cost of the construction and maintenance of the school.
But that’s not what happened, and on Tuesday, the Polk County School Board voted unanimously to reject Somerset Academy’s application for a charter school, a vote that surprised some members of PEDA.
“It’s not that they don’t have charter schools in Polk County,” said PEDA member Annette Brown-Best. “They have them in Lakeland.”
PEDA’s chairman, Nick Murdock, said they did get a consolation prize, and a rather big one: a pledge by the Polk County School Department to work on getting a high school built in Poinciana-Polk County.
“They asked us to work with their staff to put together a proposal for a high school,” Murdock said.
One of PEDA’s central missions this year has been to bring more schools to the Polk County side of Poinciana, where the 10 villages are divided between that county and Osceola County. Most of the schools in Poinciana are on the Osceola side, including three high schools. But Poinciana’s Polk County residents can’t attend those schools because they don’t pay Osceola County property taxes.
That means outside of the students who attend two local elementary schools in Poinciana-Polk County, older students have to commute to other communities to attend middle and high school.
“They leave home at 5:30 in the morning,” said PEDA member Fernando Valverde. “Some of the kids go to Haines City, and some of them do to Dundee. That’s a long way. It means by the time they come home, they’re tired and don’t want to study. All they do is go to school, back and forth.”
PEDA had been lobbying the Polk County School Board to consider making Lake Marion Creek Elementary School a middle school, as it was originally intended to be, when Somerset Academy contacted the nonprofit group about building a new charter school in Poinciana, which is already the home to another charter school, New Dimensions High.
But on Tuesday, the Polk School Board rejected that application.
“They didn’t have enough information about the elementary school, and they were not wild about Somerset,” Murdock said.
Still, the school department’s willingness to consider building a public high school in Poinciana-Polk County, he said, is very welcome and encouraging news.
“We have no high school, we have no middle school, and we have over 12,000 students,” Murdock said. “The average student in Osceola County drives 600 miles each year to attend middle school, and the average student in Polk County drives 1,800 miles. That tells you what the situation is like.”
During the school board meeting, the PEDA members tried to outline the community’s needs, and spoke about how the Poinciana villages on the Polk County side have grown too quickly to have their educational needs pushed off any longer.
“We’re losing jobs because the teachers and school administrators and bus drivers are not from Poinciana,” Valverde said.
Brown-Best noted that Poinciana’s housing market is getting better and more people are buying homes there. Those families will put added pressure on the local school system, she said.
“The people are coming back into Poinciana,” she said. “Where are the schools?”
Farrell said she felt that PEDA scored a moral victory by raising these critical issues to the School Department in the first place.
“Nobody knows about the issues in Poinciana until we raise them,” she said.
And Farrell added that she hopes Polk truly is committed to building a high school in Poinciana-Polk County.
“If the county wants to build a high school there,” she said, “that’s fine with me.”
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