Old Court Order Could Stop Sale of Historically Black School

Erika Hobbs, Orlando Sentinel, August 11, 2009

A 1951 court order that has been collecting dust for decades could thwart Orange County school officials’ plans for selling a historically black school and its surrounding land.

The school district wants to sell 115 acres to Eatonville for development that could bring the town new tax revenue. The tract includes Robert L. Hungerford Preparatory High, a magnet school that was shuttered in June.

It’s a tricky deal, however, because the 58-year-old order governs how part of the land can be used. And it’s a deal that will be closely watched because it could revitalize Eatonville’s anemic economy at the cost of losing Hungerford Prep, a symbol of achievement in the black community.

The order, written years before desegregation, requires that the property continue “as a site for the operation of a public school thereon for Negroes with emphasis on the vocational education for Negroes.”

The Robert Hungerford Chapel Trust, which sold the land to the district, insists that roughly 50 acres now occupied by Hungerford Prep and nearby Hungerford Elementary must continue to be used for public schools. If not, the trustees say, the restricted land will revert to the trust.

The school district, however, contends that it can comply with the order just by continuing to operate the elementary school, said school district attorney Frank Kruppenbacher. He and the district’s real estate attorneys said that the school system is required only to use the land for “educational purposes”–a term that does not appear in the original court order or in subsequent ones that permitted the district to sell off other pieces of the Hungerford land.

Ultimately, the courts will have to interpret the order’s modern-day meaning. School and Eatonville officials plan to ask the courts to lift the restrictions on most of the land so that the sale can proceed, either now or a few years down the road. The trust, however, plans to sue to block the deal.

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Then, this year, as a budget crisis escalated, the School Board abruptly closed Hungerford Prep. That’s when the momentum for the land deal picked up.

District and School Board officials began to wonder whether the historical significance of the school may have run its course, and whether the opportunity the land sale offers for reinvestment in Eatonville could be more important to the black community than hanging on to a piece of history of the segregated South.

“I never did want to get rid of Hungerford Prep,” said board member Kat Gordon, who reluctantly gave in to the sale. “But we know we need to let it go.”

Eatonville Mayor Bruce Mount, elected in March, didn’t want an empty campus in the town’s back yard, and district officials needed the cash. So in June, leaders outlined a new deal that would sell the last large, developable tract in Eatonville to the town. It includes Hungerford Prep, Hungerford Elementary and Lake Bell. No price has been negotiated yet, and an appraisal is under way.

The school district would maintain control of Hungerford Elementary and would use its portion of the proceeds to beef up early childhood programs in Eatonville.

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