Julie Aranibar elected school board chair as board makes property sale decision

eearl@bradenton.comNovember 20, 2013 

MANATEE -- The Manatee County School Board nominated Julie Aranibar as its new chairwoman at a reorganization meeting Tuesday.

While the decision on its reorganization seemed to go smoothly -- Aranibar was approved as the new chairwoman in a 4-1 vote -- the board struggled to decide on which property to sell to supplement the district's budget. Board member Bob Gause nominated Barbara Harvey as the next board chair, but Harvey declined the nomination for health reasons. The board unanimously chose Dave "Watchdog" Miner as vice chair.

The board also lauded Karen Carpenter, its outgoing chairwoman who led the board through a search for a new superintendent and legal team, presenting her with roses and a plaque in honor of her service.

Afterward, the board took its time in deciding to sell the district's 10-acre property on Caruso Road and SR 70 by Braden River High School and the Manatee Technical Institute. The other four parcels, none of which has been declared surplus yet, were not on the agenda for a vote.

The property, outparcels of Braden River High School and the Manatee Technical Institute, was valued at $2 million in 2009. The property was purchased in 2003.

Although the MTI board of governors has shown concern over selling a property that could be used for school expansion, the board approved the property for surplus in a 4-0 vote. Gause recused himself from the vote because of potential conflict with his development consulting firm Allison-Gause.

A reluctant Harvey, who originally suggested the decision be tabled until December, also voted in favor of the surplus.

Carpenter also had her concerns.

"It is proximate to major educational institutions, and whatever happens to these properties will have an impact," Carpenter said. "We need to be mindful of that. I'm also troubled that we would potentially be sacrificing some long term benefit because of the short term budget crisis we are in."

Miner said the board did

the right thing.

"We need money now to make our commitment to the state," Miner said. "If we had the money in the bank we wouldn't be talking about this."

Other properties up for discussion include a 3.5 acre outparcel at Bayshore High School, 5.2 acres at King Middle School and 1 acre at Miller Elementary School.

Miner said Miller's School Advisory Council and Parent Teacher Organization have concerns about student safety with the loss of the acre in front of the elementary school that sits directly on Manatee Ave.

Harvey is also concerned about safety.

"Currently there are three banks in the area," Harvey said. "We might need to look at criminal activity in that area, especially if another bank might be going in."

The school board will also continue to consider 7 acres on SR 70 and 66th St E that borders Braden River High School and MTI.

Although the property is bisected by wetlands under jurisdiction, Miner said the location makes the property ideal for commercial use.

The board is also concerned about possible safety issues with traffic. The board has unsuccessfully requested a traffic light at that location.

"There is a real need for master planning," Carpenter said. "We need to take some action for how traffic goes in and out."

Superintendent Rick Mills said the board must make decisions soon.

"We will find ourselves unable to overcome our budget issues if we keep finding reasons not to sell properties," Mills said. "We worked very hard on a budget that requires that. It is part of our fiscal recovery plan we submitted to the state."

Deputy superintendent of operations Don Hall echoed Mills.

"Like antiques, these properties are valued," Hall said. "The family wants each of them when settling, and everyone has a reason why it is or isn't a good reason to sell. The challenge is getting everyone to agree. We don't have time for a complete survey and master plan. We are in November. One contract is already on hedge, and we will still need another $2 million plus."

The contract that is "on the hedge" is the Checkers property.

Route 32 Investments, whose offer was accepted in September, has begun identifying challenges with parking and access at the property. Similar issues have turned away buyers in the past.

The City of Bradenton said a five-story office building could go in the place of the one-story Owens Annex building that currently sits on the property. However, parking would be an issue, and Route 32 investments is showing signs of pulling out of the deal.

School board attorney James Dye said the school board can walk away from the deal, or they could extend the due diligence period into January or February.

Miner said Route 32 Investments has not done its homework.

"They may be in the boat with us, but they're not rowing," Miner said. "We want to close quick and we want our money, not an elusive date in the future."

The Checkers property has an appraised value of $1.65 million. Route 32 offered $2 million.

The school board is considering a back up contract with Benderson Development, who made an offer of $1.2 million in July.

The contract with Benderson would be subject to the buyer not fulfilling the existing contract.

"You could draft a back up contract, but it would be clear that the current buyer has first bite of the apple," Dye said.

Aranibar said that while the back up offer is significantly less, the board should "note Benderson's track record."

"They have probably calculated quickly how to utilize it," Aranibar said.

The school board is holding that decision, as well as the decision to declare the other school outparcels as surplus.

"If we go down the path of rejecting Checker's, that was going to pay half of the bill," Hall said. "I would like to see the 2 (million) versus the 1.2 (million)."

Erica Earl, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081.

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