Coffin, 8-21-2018

Guest Column: Orange County definitely should renew funding for OCPS

JimCoffin(Orlando Sentinel, August 21, 2018)

By James Coffin

On Aug. 28, Orange County residents will decide whether the one-mill property-tax assessment that has benefited Orange County Public Schools for the past six years will be renewed for an additional four years.

I hope the vote will be a resounding Yes. OCPS needs those resources.

The grim reality is that Florida’s state Legislature has increased its funding for basic education during the 2018-2019 school year by a mere 47 cents per student. That’s 47 cents for the entire school year — which, granted our current rate of inflation, is effectively a significant cut in funding.

So continuing to receive the one-mill property tax assessment is crucial. As the OCPS website states: “Without an extension of the one mill, OCPS anticipates a 2019 budget reduction of $143 million, which will impact many hundreds of teachers, academic programs, arts and athletics.”

Now I recognize that I could be seen as out of line for trying to influence the Aug. 28 vote — because I don’t live in Orange County. Nor do I own property there.

Perhaps even more disqualifying, I’m not the product of public-school education. I received the first 17 years of my education via home schooling and private schools. So who do I think I am to so boldly urge everyone in Orange County to vote Yes to maintain a crucial funding component for their public schools?

Let me start by saying that during my 27-year sojourn in neighboring Seminole County, I’ve voted Yes for every ballot measure that raised my taxes to better fund public education. I understand the value of high-quality public education and believe every community should have excellent public schools.

But there’s something more specific here: When Orange County Public Schools set up its Faith-Based Advisory six or seven years ago, I was invited to be a member because of my role as executive director of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida.

I’m glad I accepted, because four times each year community faith representatives sit down with high-level OCPS school administrators for two hours of candid reports, questions and conversation. Those exchanges have been both informative and inspirational.

Allow me to share just a few facts about OCPS:

  • Orange County Public Schools is the the fourth-largest school system in Florida and the ninth-largest in the United States.
  • The 2017-2018 school year saw a total K-12 enrollment of 207,253.
  • Student racial/ethnic mix is: 41 percent Hispanic, 27 percent white, 25 percent black, 5 percent Asian and 2 percent multicultural.
  • The students represent 194 countries, and 170 languages or dialects are spoken at home.
  • OCPS serves more than 215,336 meals per day and 38.7 million meals per year.
  • During the 2017-2018 school year, OCPS’s 916 buses daily traveled a combined total of more than 100,000 miles — for an annual total of almost 19 million miles.
  • With some 24,629 employees, OCPS is the second-largest employer in Central Florida.

The foregoing, though it barely scratches the surface, nevertheless gives some idea of the magnitude of the operation and the challenge of meeting the needs of such a diverse student clientele.

What it fails to provide is any insight into the caring, commitment and creativity of the OCPS administrative and instructional personnel. I’ve gained that insight through many hours of interaction over several years.

But my appeal for continued funding through the property-tax assessment isn’t about OCPS employees, impressive and deserving though they are. It’s about our region’s children and youth. It’s about ensuring that every young person has access to the best academic grounding possible so they’ll have the greatest chance for a productive and rewarding life.

Thus I invite every resident of Orange County to spend a few minutes at the OCPS website.

If you’re in a hurry, just check out the Pocket Guide under the About Us section of the menu. Click on the Vote icon on the home page. Make yourself conversant with the facts. Share those facts with your family, friends and neighbors.

Then vote Yes on Aug. 28.

James Coffin is the executive director of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida