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School Scandal: Improper ‘Verbal Agreement’ with Universal Orlando Uncovered

Raising concerns about liability, school safety and special beneficial treatment, an improper “verbal agreement” between Universal Orlando Resort and Orange County Public Schools was uncovered by West Orlando News. Now, the issue is also being raised in the School Board election, with Chair Teresa Jacobs, who is seeking re-election, responding to concerns and candidate Carl Brewer slamming the deal and promising change.

For years, Universal Orlando has been using a school parking lot of the OCPS high school during peak seasons like the summer and popular event Halloween Horror Nights for their employees so the theme park can sell more $27 parking spaces to paying guests at the CityWalk garage – all without signing a written agreement like any other entity utilizing OCPS property is forced to do. This arrangement violates official policy, yet even after OCPS became aware of the violation of policies, Universal was allowed to continue using the school property without a written agreement through July. It also jeopardizes school safety and puts OCPS in jeopardy in regards to liability. OCPS claims the verbal deal was made by a principal at Dr. Phillips High School and that it was somehow continued indefinitely until concerns were raised last month.

“While I have great respect for Universal and appreciate the long-standing relationship we’ve had with them, district policy does require schools to have a contract and board approval for such agreements,” School Board Chair Jacobs admitted when questioned by West Orlando News. “It is my understanding that a contract is currently being negotiated to resolve any concerns going forward.”

That is not good enough, according to many concerned with the improper verbal agreement including Carl Brewer, candidate for School Board Chair.

“The safety of our students at OCPS is paramount to me and should always be a top priority,” said Brewer. “With the safety of the students in mind, a verbal agreement to use this parking lot, is not an acceptable practice for the use of OCPS property. Regardless of when this verbal agreement was made, this practice should not be allowed to continue.”

“We should not be surprised though, that this is happening though under Teresa Jacobs’ watch as OCPS School Board Chair,” Brewer continued. “We are talking about the same woman who freely allows boys and girls in our school system to choose to use whichever restroom they ‘feel’ suits them best, which is a huge safety risk being forced upon our children physically, mentally, and emotionally. We are talking about the same women who behind closed doors codified the verbiage mother/woman and father/man to ‘birthing person’ and ‘person,’ which is slap in the face to every parent in the county, especially every woman who gave birth to their children. My point is, that over time, she has consistently shown complete disregard for the law and acted in an unprofessional manner.”

OCPS district staff confirmed the school system had not been aware of this improper agreement for up to two decades, which is baffling considering the partnership between Universal Orlando and OCPS. Universal even operates a school on their theme park property. Also, with the focus on safety and security in schools, it was surprising to see the lack of action by the school district to protect OCPS. District staff were also confused about the arrangement and how Universal Orlando was using the property when questioned repeatedly by West Orlando News over several weeks, including not realizing that the theme park employees were using the parking lot every day of the week, despite parking instructions Universal Orlando publicly posted online for their Team Members.

“They shouldn’t be parking without a written agreement,” OCPS district staff told West Orlando News when questioned further about the situation last month.

Universal Orlando clearly posts that Team Members for Volcano Bay, who usually park at the CityWalk parking garage, were the ones to use Dr. Phillips High School. (source: Universal Orlando site)

Yet, even after the OCPS policy violation was discovered, Universal continued to use the school property and make additional profits in CityWalk. The theme park openly posted that Volcano Bay Team Members who normally park at CityWalk would use the high school instead during peak season (see photo below). This raises even more concerns about current Principal Jackie Ramsey, who allowed outside adults onto school property without a written agreement protecting her school and OCPS. The school district told West Orlando News that Principal Ramsey became aware of the improper arrangement when she took over in early July, but they could then not answer why she allowed it to continue despite being a clear violation of OCPS policy.

When OCPS staff was presented with that information from us, the last response was that they had partnered with their legal department. West Orlando News is still awaiting a public records request to provide more clarity on this violation of policy.

Without the signed written agreement, Universal Orlando assumed no liability and did not agree to lengthy policies and standards established by the Orange County School Board. That raises major concerns with school safety and use of the school property, just days before staff and students return. If they continue to use the school parking lot for other peak seasons, it would overlap with the school year.

Carl Brewer, Orange County School Board Chair candidate

“With regard to Universal Orlando utilizing 382 spaces of parking at Dr. Phillips High School during peak season operations and special event season, such as Halloween Horror Nights, there are several issues that need to be addressed,” Brewer said. “First, there is the assignment of liability, whereas, if anything were to happen on OCPS premises, who would assume responsibility without a written agreement detailing the requirements that have been bestowed to Universal Orlando. Next, is ensuring there is no contraband on premises in accordance with OCPS policies and procedures. Moreover, such an agreement requires that there should be a written agreement ratified by the board and ensures there is a bond or liability coverage with OCPS named as an insurable interest during the use of the property.”

OCPS told West Orlando News that there is always at least an administrator and custodial staff present if a location is being used. That means additional costs for OCPS while Universal profits, and it further puts the responsibility on OCPS staff. Without a written agreement, safety is being put at risk.

“In addition to this, there should also be guidelines that require Universal Orlando to sweep the property and ensure the area has been secured for the following day and that students will be safe on the property,” Brewer continued. “Furthermore, there should be security fencing with blackout coverings to ensure individuals cannot scout the property with the intent of ill will, as the current six foot fence does not meet this criterion, or the purpose of protecting the students and faculty of OCPS, on-premise. To further this point, even if there are no students on premises during these times, we must always consider that there is someone out there with the intent to do harm, and as such, we must ensure the premises are secured.”

OCPS told West Orlando News that all schools are secure and that they have many layers of security, which obviously will not be discussed publicly. But with shootings, violence, drugs and crime on the rise in Orlando and across the country, it is shocking OCPS did not move faster to ensure Universal Orlando assumed liability and agreed in writing to implement basic safety policies when using school property. Universal openly posted to Team Members that there would be a security screening and ID check after a shuttle ride to the theme park property, not at the school location. No one knew who was on school property at any time, and only the small chain-link fence divides the parking lot from the school.

OCPS also confirmed to West Orlando News that Universal Orlando is the only entity to have a deal like this, indicating bias and favoritism in addition to liability and school safety concerns. District staff claimed it is because of “proximity” to the school and cited all the freebies the school is able to collect from Universal. In exchange for using the parking spots for their employees so they could make hundreds of thousands of dollars in parking fees, Universal donated non-monetary items like free park tickets, opportunities to participate in parades at the theme park, printed banners for the school, and much more. See the full list below.

But OCPS also made it clear that no one else would get an agreement like this. OCPS also said no other principal or school would be allowed to enter into verbal agreements.

The odd thing about this “verbal agreement” is that OCPS says Universal has been using the school parking lots for nearly two decades – that means using the OCPS lot instead of investing money to build proper infrastructure for their Team Members. At the same time Universal is constructing a brand new theme park, they are having their employees park at a local high school so the company can make more money instead of building more employee parking on their own property.

Brewer and others think a better deal can be made that actually benefits the students, teachers and schools.

“With regard to compensation for the use of OCPS premises, Universal Orlando currently donates in-kind contributions, like free park tickets, float riding experiences, banners for the school, and more,” Brewer said. “However, Universal Orlando currently profits from the use of these premises. With that in mind, there needs to be full financial compensation due to OCPS going forward. If I was in charge, this potential new revenue stream would be used for property enhancements, new security measures and increasing each teacher’s compensation package.”

District staff told West Orlando News they also agree perhaps the arrangement can get better now that OCPS is aware and involved.

But if Universal is making additional profits during their peak season, instead of building adequate employee infrastructure in their own backlot, why shouldn’t OCPS benefit financially too? With parking costing $27 per car, Universal is literally making hundreds of thousands of dollars each year off this verbal deal. Some want Universal to pay for enhanced security measures or even pay increases for teachers, not just special free theme park perks for just Dr. Phillips High.

“Also, I would like to add this as a new revenue stream, which, I would advocate to give that money back to the teacher’s for pay increases and increased security measures throughout our school system,” Brewer concluded.

Orange County School Board Chair Teresa Jacobs

Chair Jacobs responded to questions about what actions she took once she learned of the improper verbal agreement from West Orlando News and she attempted to distance her role from the issue. “As you are probably aware, as school board chair, my individual authority is greatly limited compared to the authority I had as county mayor; therefore, I do not have the authority, individually, to direct the actions of staff,” Jacobs said.

However, she did say she instructed the Deputy Superintendent to contact all principals and remind them that they must follow school board policy pertaining to the use of school facilities and school board properties. Jacobs emphasized official policy does not allow for verbal contracts or agreements.

OCPS has still not provided a written agreement at the time of publication, but OCPS said it is being worked on by the school principal. Here’s what Universal has previously provided to Dr. Phillips High School for use of the parking lot, as noted by OCPS:

RELATED: School Board Chair Accepts, Refunds Universal Contributions Amid Scandal

1000 students receive free entry to the park based on a year’s worth of growth on the FSA Reading or Math assessments; Staff day in the park including cafeteria, classified and custodial staff; All retirees get an annual pass to both parks; 4 teachers receive a pair of two park tickets for Teacher Appreciation week; 18 staff members spend the day in the park and ride a Mardi Gras float each year; Teachers receive boxed lunches on the afternoon of Open House; The leadership team is sponsored for holiday and end of the year celebrations at one of the restaurants; Sponsorship ads are purchased for the Theatre “Paw Bill”; Sponsorship ads are purchased for athletic field banners; 200 backpacks filled with supplies are purchased through a gift for teaching; Visiting students participating in the homestay program for the CIS Magnet from Japan, Denmark and Iceland receive free entry to both parks; Tables, Chairs, Red Carpet, Props provided for special events; Annual dinner for PTSA provided; Annual dinner for SAC provided; Pre-game meals provided for football players and coaches for all home games; ESE student experiential visits in production kitchens; ESE student graduation hosted on property; Grants for educational projects – miscellaneous based on applications; Student recognition banners displayed on parking lot light posts for magnets, clubs and athletics.

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