Orange County State of the Schools speech focuses on school growth, teacher shortage

by: Jason Kelly Updated:

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ORLANDO, Fla. - Orange County Public Schools said it's thinking big when it comes to its growing student body.

The state’s second-fastest-growing school district enrolled 6,000 new students this school year, and it will open six new schools this fall to keep up with the influx in students.

Superintendent Barbara Jenkins said Wednesday during the State of the Schools address that the large increase is to be expected given the development happening in both the eastern and western portions of the county.

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"Central Florida will continue to grow," she said. "Because of the funding model, you get additional dollars for more students, but that doesn't help you because once you pay for the growth -- the additional teachers that you need -- you still won't have any significant dollars left for pay raises for our teachers."

School Board Chairman Bill Sublette said a half-cent sales tax helps fund the construction of new schools and the renovation of existing schools.

Sublette said 40 new schools are on the drawing board for the next 10 years

Even with the additional schools, another major concern is having enough teachers to teach.

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“We are bursting at the seams, and our growth is a challenge,” he said. “If we get a large, unexpected influx of students, no matter how we have in revenue and resources, you can only build the schools so fast.”

Jennifer Grimes, whose daughter is in the ninth grade, said overcrowding is problematic.

“My daughter deals with several substitutes and not a regular teacher (who’s) there every day,” she said. “And that plays an impact on their learning as well.”

Grimes said teachers should have fewer students per classroom.

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“I think the teacher shortage is a big concern,” she said. “The kids need more time with the teachers. The more kids, the less time.”

The school district said it hires between 500 and 600 new teachers each year, but it said the influx of students makes it difficult to maintain a balanced student-to-teacher ratio.

And keeping teachers is also a struggle, Sublette said.

“Teachers are underpaid, so what I have not been able to figure out is why the legislature would cut education funding,” he said. “It’s going to be increasingly difficult to hire the teachers, especially the bilingual teachers, (who) are in high demand to really accommodate our large Hispanic population.”

The district has scouted and recruited bilingual teachers for five years.

“We actually actively recruit in Puerto Rico,” Sublette said. “We actually recruit down (at) Florida International University and some of the southeast Florida universities, because they have larger percentages who are bilingual.”

The district said it could see even more students next year because of the large number of school closures on the island.

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